Tech Trends

Virtual Reality: Opportunity and Impact on EA

By Marina London, LCSW, CEAP


It is a frequent theme of this column to point out that EAPs tend to be typically late adopters of technological innovation, and how this isn’t a good thing since companies that jump into providing new products and services in a timely manner easily win a competitive edge.

Such is the case with virtual reality. But VR is no longer science fiction, it is here now. Oculus Rift is one of two companies selling virtual reality (VR) goggles to the public. Released in March 2016, they are expensive ($600), and additionally, content creation that exploits an immersive, 3D experience is still in its infancy. Facebook purchased Oculus for $2 billion in March 2014. So expect to see rapid penetration and plunging prices.

There will be a ready made and eager audience for this technology. A recent Tech Insider article stated that the typical U.S. adult under the age of 45 owns four digital devices, and the average person spends 90% more time consuming digital media on a smartphone today than just three years ago. (Most likely the direct impact of streaming video content.)

Rampant Online Use a Growing Crisis
The signs of crisis stemming from such rampant use are everywhere. The same article reports that nearly 60% of computer users check email in the bathroom; 15% have read their email in church; and 85% say they would take a laptop on vacation.

As if that isn’t enough, we check 40 websites a day; open 85% of work emails within two minutes; and switch between programs nearly 37 times an hour. Forget the adolescents who play World of Warcraft for days on end – adults have played Angry Birds until they developed repetitive stress injuries. 
In China, there’s even a boot camp to rehabilitate “web junkies” who prefer the gaming world to the real one. A 2014 documentary, “Web Junkie,” documented a three-month military-style rehab program in Beijing that depicted a process that may help set a standard as the wider world comes to grips with the devastating consequences of excessive Internet use.

The program’s founder, a psychiatrist, explains that the average person cannot begin to imagine the level of pathology he has seen. He describes young people who voluntarily wear adult diapers so that even the call of nature need not interrupt their game play.

Now, consider that the opportunity for VR use in mental health settings was already being touted in 2004. One article abstract summarized the opportunities: “Especially interesting for us is the use of VR as a therapeutic tool…VR has many advantages (e.g., it is a protected environment for the patient, he/she can re-experience many times the feared situation, etc.). There are already data on the effectiveness of this technology in the treatment of… anxiety disorders, eating disorders, and sexual disorders...” 

Consider that in the American Psychiatric Association’s DSM-5 released in 2013, “Internet Use Disorder” is not yet recognized as an official diagnosis. It was introduced as a condition “recommended for further study.”

Opportunities for Treatment
This has not stopped a variety of clinicians, in a variety of settings, from providing treatment. In an article “Digital disconnect: Will VR take addiction to the next level?” author Christina Nava discusses the pathological impact of virtual reality systems, now that they are accessible to the public. She quotes Brittany Ott, a corporate services clinician at the Illinois Institute for Addiction Recovery at Proctor Hospital, who believes that “VR provides a quicker way to get into an altered state, so the more accessible it becomes, the more at risk it is of becoming an addiction.”

Addiction professionals at reSTART, (which touts itself as the USA’s first Internet and technology addiction recovery center) are already concerned that VR may alter brain chemistry in ways not yet fully understood.

reSTART team members have spent seven years gathering research that indicates the excessive use of digital devices, including video game systems, are associated with “an intensity of mental health symptoms such as depression, anxiety, attention deficit disorder, and in many cases, autism spectrum traits and features.”

Impact and Opportunity for EAPs
In terms of technology, there are multiple levels of engagement for EA professionals and EAPs: 

* First level – Read the literature on VR, and pay attention to developments that will increase the probability of a disordered client calling for service. By the time the goggles go on sale at your local Best Buy store, we will have an epidemic on our hands.

* Second level – Locate and contract resources that will enable you to assist and refer an affected individual or concerned family member who approach you for help with Internet Use Disorder. 

* Third level – Provide “lunch and learn” programs to educate employees about Internet Use Disorder.

Science fiction has predicted many technological advances and their potential for negative impacts on mankind. A famous Star Trek episode features a fallen race of humanoid aliens who fell victim to mass-projected illusions. Their power to conjure these alternate realities is considered so dangerous that their entire planet is off limits.

We have developed the ability to craft immersive illusions, and soon they will be accessible to everyone. It behooves our field to be proactive and learn how to harness the positives of VR, while educating our clients before they fall victim to its seduction.

Marina London is Manager of Web Services for EAPA and author of iWebU, (http://www.iwebu.info,) a weekly blog for mental health and EA professionals who are challenged by social media and Internet technologies. She previously served as an executive for several national EAP and managed mental health care firms. She can be reached at m.london@eapassn.org.

Resources

As virtual reality rolls out, will addiction follow? reSTART  http://netaddictionrecovery.com/virtual-reality/vr-addiction.html  

Digital disconnect: Will VR take addiction to the next level? Christina Nava. Multibriefs Exclusive. April 14, 2016. http://exclusive.multibriefs.com/content/digital-disconnect-will-vr-take-addiction-to-the-next-level/mental-healthcare 

Oculus Rift: Welcome to the Future. CNET. March 2016. http://www.cnet.com/special-reports/oculus-rift-review/ 

Our addiction to technology is like a drug high — but we can fix it. Travis Murdock. Tech Insider. Apr. 12, 2016. http://www.techinsider.io/the-cost-of-technology-addiction-2016-4
 
Virtual reality and psychotherapy. Botella C, Quero S, Baños RM, Perpiñá C, García Palacios A, Riva G. Student Health Technology Information. 2004; 99:37-54. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/15295145