Virtual Reality: Social Impacts


Virtually the Same as Real Life

With the release of Sony’s virtual reality (VR) headset last week, many organizations are asking if they should wait and see how the technology develops or act now to create content and partnerships. The answer depends on how and why your organization would want to apply VR — regardless it will be important to keep in mind the possible social impacts of VR, some of which we’ll discuss here.

If you want to reach out to the 140 million plus videogame-obsessed players and fans that will soon start adopting VR, it is imperative to start now. We wrote about “eSports: The Rise of Professional Gaming” last year and have strong ties within the gaming industry if your company wants to get involved – from league partnerships to advertising opportunities to non-profits that use gaming to further social causes. Contact us to discuss this further.

Tens of millions of VR headsets are projected to be sold before the end of 2016. As the price of the technology drops in coming years, VR is likely to proliferate, and exercise a steadily growing influence on society.

Like no technology before it, VR is immersive, putting users in the middle of the action, making them active participants rather than passive watchers. And because it feels like a real experience, bridging the gap between users and their digital avatars, early research suggests that VR has a deeper and more long-lasting psychological impact than other media.

Thus far, VR games have captured much of the public and media attention. Yet the applications of VR go well beyond game-playing. In coming years, VR will become an increasingly important tool in education, healthcare, sports, architecture, the marketing of real estate and other products, pornography (of course), and much more.

Here we look at a few potential negative and positive social impacts of VR.

Possible Dangers of VR

Cybersickness. Studies have already shown that VR has physical side-effects that can include nausea, eyestrain, neck strain, and headaches—a nexus of symptoms that has been dubbed “cybersickness.” VR headset makers are attempting to improve motion tracking and increase frames per second in an effort to reduce associated motion sickness. In the meantime, Samsung and Oculus both advise users to take breaks every half-hour or so. Among children, VR may also produce dizziness, seizures, and possibly poor hand-eye coordination.

Damaging intimacy. The focus of much concern in this regard centers on the impact of VR on sexual relationships. Many critics worry that the ease-of-access and gratifying nature of VR sex (by design) and the absence of emotional entanglements might make actual, real-world physical contact less desirable for many users. Since pornography (including VR porn) focuses solely on the individual user’s self-gratification, the mutual pleasure (ideally) involved in real-world sexual relations may seem less appealing, more difficult, and even alien to a VR user’s experience.

The inevitable growth of VR porn begs such question as: Will VR sex alter (and some would say warp) users’ expectations of what real-life sex can and should be? Will VR sex train users to see sex solely as a means of self-gratification, regardless of the needs of the other? Should virtual sex be considered infidelity to one’s real-life partner? Will all these possible consequences lead to a weakening of marital and familial bonds and a rise in the divorce rate?

Possible Benefits of VR

Coping treatments. VR provides an opportunity for patients to practice new coping strategies in situations that cause them anxiety. In one experiment, VR treatment helped users combat depression and anxiety by increasing their self-acceptance, self-compassion, and self-confidence while reducing their self-criticism. The program allowed users first to comfort a distressed child and then to take the place of that child, becoming the recipient of their own compassionate words and gestures.

VR has also been used successfully in treating such afflictions as post-traumatic stress disorder, paranoia, drug addiction, and a variety of phobias ranging from spiders and flying to crowds and public speaking.

Pain management. VR also has a palliative effect—perhaps due solely to the intensity of the distraction it provides. It has demonstrated its effectiveness in significantly easing the pain of cancer patients receiving chemotherapy as well as burn victims undergoing treatment and rehabilitation. Since the reduction of pain can boost survival rates, this palliative effect may be one of the greatest benefits VR can provide.

Positive behavior tool. VR has the demonstrated ability to increase empathy—for both others and for the users themselves.By increasing empathy toward oneself, VR can powerfully influence behavior. One experiment, for example, found that college students whose VR avatars were altered to look like their 65-year-old selves were willing to save twice as much money as those whose avatars were unchanged. Similarly, by showing users the impact of poor health choices on their future selves, VR avatars proved more effective in conveying health messages.


Given the immersive nature of VR, brands have an opportunity to strongly engage consumers, offer tangible benefits, and leave a lasting impression, but they must also police themselves from negatively impacting consumers.