Social exclusion in virtual realities has a negative social and emotional impact in real life

February 16, 2017
Social exclusion in virtual realities has a negative social and emotional impact in "real" life . Credit: Medical University of Vienna

In this age of highly realistic computer games and increasingly popular social networks, social exclusion in virtual worlds is becoming more and more socially significant, as is demonstrated by the growing number of "cyber mobbing" cases. However, up until now, very little research has been carried out into the impact of social exclusion in the digital world upon real-life social behaviour, and hardly any that addresses the latest developments such as Virtual Reality (VR) glasses. Anna Felnhofer from MedUni Vienna's Department of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine and Oswald Kothgassner from the Division of Clinical Psychology and Department of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine at Vienna General Hospital have now shown that exclusion from a virtual group has a significant negative impact upon willingness to help and social distance in the real world.

The experiment was conducted using the so-called Cyberball Paradigm, a virtual reality ball game, in which a participant is excluded by the other players without any apparent reason. Felnhofer and Kothgassner have already shown in previous studies that slights and exclusion in virtual environments elicit the same emotions and physical responses as they would in a real situation. "If the participant was excluded from the ball game or stopped from playing at a certain point, the same physiological processes were triggered as would be the case in normal life. The person in question started to produce more cortisol, their heart rate increased and they became sad and withdrawn," explain the study authors.

Basic human needs are threatened

The recent study was once again based on the Cyberball Paradigm and used VR glasses to simulate the game for 45 young adults (23 females and 22 males). It appeared that social exclusion was a significant threat to the four basic social needs anchored in our evolution: social control, belonging, self-esteem and social presence. And this threat was also carried over into real life – all the more so if the had been suffered by an avatar, that is to say a virtual figure, which the affected person sees as a front that hides the real person. Exclusion by a so-called agent, that is to say a character that is obviously computer-controlled, was easier to bear. "Out of self-defence, exclusion by agents was ascribed to a computer error, for example," says Felnhofer.

According to the researchers, personal defeat on the Internet very easily carries over into reality, since the emotions are the same. "Thus, somebody who has experienced cyber mobbing or virtual exclusion can suddenly become withdrawn and passive in real life and lose all their self-confidence. This can even lead to depression or post-traumatic stress." At the same time, the participants who had been excluded in VR then lost their willingness to help others in reality or needed more time to re-engage in real social interaction. "This creates a vicious circle, because this behaviour can prevent bonding to another social group, leading to the development of social and emotional problems and even psychological disorders," explain the study authors.

Developing media skills, showing interest, discussing dangers

It is therefore necessary to develop media skills for virtual worlds – not only for children and adolescents but also for parents and teachers. "Social media and computer games are not a bad thing in themselves and it is impossible to prevent young people from moving in virtual worlds," says Kothgassner, "but the same dangers lurk there as on the way to school, for example." These need to be discussed in advance and taken seriously – only by doing so is it possible to protect against or mitigate the social impact of the Internet on real life.

Everyone feels these social effects – it is just a question of how long you spend in the and your level of engagement: "Some people feel the effects after only five minutes, while others need five hours." And the effects do not always have to be negative: Virtual social successes are also reflected in real life and can result in increased self-confidence.

Explore further: Virtual reality helps children on autism spectrum improve social skills

More information: Oswald D. Kothgassner et al. Real-life prosocial behavior decreases after being socially excluded by avatars, not agents, Computers in Human Behavior (2017). DOI: 10.1016/j.chb.2016.12.059

Related Stories

Virtual reality helps children on autism spectrum improve social skills

September 22, 2016
Although most children with high-functioning autism have above average intellectual capabilities, they often experience social difficulties. Deficits in social communication and difficulty inhibiting thoughts and regulating ...

Is a hormone the key to understanding borderline personality disorder?

September 4, 2014
In the current issue of Psychotherapy and Psychosomatics a group of German investigators is reporting on the potential effects of a hormone in borderline personality disorder. Besides affective instability and identity diffusion, ...

Brain stimulation may buffer feelings of social pain

December 4, 2012
Accumulating evidence suggests that certain brain areas involved in processing physical pain may also underlie feelings of social pain. But can altering brain activity in these areas actually change how people experience ...

Exclusion more harmful to teens than overt bullying

September 3, 2015
A UQ researcher has found that social exclusion among teens can be more harmful than direct bullying.

Young marijuana users respond differently to social exclusion

March 2, 2016
A new study published in the current issue of Biological Psychiatry: Cognitive Neuroscience and Neuroimaging reports that young adults who regularly use marijuana display altered brain activation patterns during social exclusion.

Fair or unfair? Facial cues influence how social exclusion is judged

August 29, 2016
People are often excluded from social groups. As researchers from the University of Basel in Switzerland report in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, whether uninvolved observers find this acceptable or not may ...

Recommended for you

Communicating in a foreign language takes emotion out of decision making

August 16, 2017
If you could save the lives of five people by pushing another bystander in front of a train to his death, would you do it? And should it make any difference if that choice is presented in a language you speak, but isn't your ...

Precision medicine opens the door to scientific wellness preventive approaches to suicide

August 15, 2017
Researchers have developed a more precise way of diagnosing suicide risk, by developing blood tests that work in everybody, as well as more personalized blood tests for different subtypes of suicidality that they have newly ...

US antidepressant use jumps 65 percent in 15 years

August 15, 2017
(HealthDay)—The number of Americans who say they've taken an antidepressant over the past month rose by 65 percent between 1999 and 2014, a new government survey finds.

Child's home learning environment predicts 5th grade academic skills

August 15, 2017
Children whose parents provide them with learning materials like books and toys and engage them in learning activities and meaningful conversations in infancy and toddlerhood are likely to develop early cognitive skills that ...

Obesity and depression are entwined, yet scientists don't know why

August 15, 2017
About 15 years ago, Dr. Sue McElroy, a psychiatrist in Mason, Ohio, started noticing a pattern. People came to see her because they were depressed, but they frequently had a more visible ailment as well: They were heavy.

Givers really are happier than takers

August 15, 2017
(HealthDay)—Generosity really is its own reward, with the brain seemingly hardwired for happiness in response to giving, new research suggests.

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.