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Through Member collaboration, MCRA helps drive performance improvements, deliver exceptional service, transform care, and champion the health and wellbeing of the communities we collectively serve.

Loneliness, the Metaverse, and Why a Sense of Presence is Important

Original post available on WiderCircle.com

Loneliness in its purest form could be considered the absence of any physical presence among others but is actually far deeper than that as a concept. One can be surrounded by others, but have a perception of being emotionally and socially disconnected, and therefore still be lonely. Loneliness matters because the health impacts of loneliness are considerable.

Lonelieness, the Metaverse, and Why a Sense of Presence is Important

Well before the recent Surgeon General’s report put the spotlight on loneliness[1], roughly 1 in 5 adults in the United States reported feeling lonely[2]. When compared to other leading health indicators in the United States, loneliness impacts a greater number of adults than those classified as obese, severely obese, inactive, and smokers[3]. The health consequences of being lonely are devastating. Multiple studies have shown the detrimental effects of loneliness and isolation on aging. It increases mortality[4],decreases quality of life[5] , has been shown to drive up healthcare costs and utilization[6], and is worse for you than smoking cigarettes[7].


1 out of 5 adults report feeling lonely

Having a sense of presence among others on demand could be an effective tactic to tackle the loneliness epidemic[8]. Big tech has made several large bets around this recently. For instance, the rebranding of Facebook to Meta, the recent release of the Apple Vision Pro and the renewed interest in AR / VR technologies are all focused on creating virtual spaces in which we can communicate and interact with one another. While these technologies are expensive at present, they will become cheaper and more realistic. But is this the silver bullet for our sense of overall isolation?


Multiple studies have shown potential detrimental effects of virtual online interaction on one’s mental health[9], including (disputed) internal studies from within big tech companies[10].. It’s much easier to consider individuals or groups as “others” and generally be less pleasant when you are not physically standing in front of them[11] due to the sense of disconnection one feels through virtual interaction. To date, there has been limited data to assess whether or not these new technologies are further amplifying online behaviors of harassment and bullying that we’ve seen thus far in other modalities. Most of the research has focused on potential risks and mitigation strategies[12],[13]. However, one does not need any data to know that the technology as it is, while impressive, is not the same as being in a room with another individual.


So what’s the pathway forward? Well, as always, there is probably a middle ground of technological intervention in tandem with good old-fashioned people-first interventions.


From a technological point of view, great thought should be taken to ensure a “presence first” presentation of any interaction with a product suite that supports this. The reality is the Metaverse is here and policymakers should be working with tech to ensure required safeguards are in place to mitigate against potential risks, and to incentivize product technologies that promote responsible use that does not worsen the outcomes of end users with this improved sense of presence.


Wider Circle believes a scalable solution can help repair some of the community fabric that has been frayed. The company comes into play with its neighborhood networks of peers, facilitated by local community engagement teams and community health workers to tackle these issues all with old fashioned “people coming together and talking” presence. Wider Circle has proven this can be delivered in a scalable way that is equitable and accessible, and given that people have been following this age-old practice for millennia, it’s probably wise to not completely abandon it.

 

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