Researchers Want To Create Safe, Inclusive Virtual Reality Hangouts For Teens

By Emma L. Barratt

The advent of the internet shifted how we socialise. Chat rooms, forums, and eventually social media platforms opened up new ways to both communicate and express ourselves. Online anonymity, for example, allowed us to be whoever we pleased to anyone with a connection — for better or worse. Psychological research followed this shift, and decades later there are troves of papers on almost every aspect of online interaction you could hope to explore.

As technology continues to march onwards, it’s brought with it increasingly accessible options for socialising in virtual reality (VR). Though VR is by definition virtual, the experiences users have in it are very much real. Since VR’s accessibility is so recent, we currently don’t have good understanding of what users get out of socialising in these spaces, or even a solid grasp of potential risks associated with them. With rapidly increasing uptake, especially in a time of mass isolation, that’s a pretty big blind spot.

However, work by soon-to-be PhD graduate Divine Maloney at Clemson University is beginning to fill this gap. His PhD research has focused primarily on understanding VR social spaces and designing safe, equitable, and fulfilling VR spaces for young users.

In a recent paper, presented at this year’s Interaction Design and Children conference, Maloney explored what attracts teenagers to socialising in VR. Conducting in-depth interviews with 20 teens from North America, Europe, and Africa, his research was able to zero in on some key themes motivating continued engagement with this technology.

For these teens, VR spaces served as both a social hub and a place they could creatively express themselves. The time spent engaging in various available VR activities — such as games, or designing new objects and spaces — varied widely between participants, but throughout their responses, participants consistently placed emphasis on the value of interacting with other players in an immersive environment. “You can go into a random room, a random place, say hey to someone and they will generally talk to you,” says Maloney. “If not, that’s okay, you move on and talk to the next person. It’s very normal, as opposed to [many] places in the offline world. When you go into [social VR spaces] the consensus is that you’re going there for a social experience.”

Particularly during isolation brought on by the pandemic, VR offered a more natural and familiar way for these younger users to interact with those outside of their home than your average zoom call. “When COVID-19 shut down schools, I didn’t have very many people to talk to or hang out with,” one participant shared. “I used social VR as a substitute for that. I would find people around my age and just simply talk to them.”

VR social spaces are more than just a new and improved Zoom call, though. They provide tools for creativity and self-expression that can’t be replicated in reality. For example, users can craft entire mini-game experiences, in-game objects, or even create new worlds. This is where socialising and self-expression in VR begins to diverge more heavily from social spaces we’re familiar with. One of Maloney’s papers from 2021 explored this in more depth, focusing on the role of avatars.

In VR spaces such as RecRoom, fully customisable avatars are an important component of the social experience, and can act as the social lubricant that starts conversations. Embodying your favourite game series’ main character, for example, is likely to attract other fans. Even non-human avatars such as Kermit the Frog might indicate something as intangible as sense of humour, and attract other users to chat based on that alone. Players can change between presentations at will, either for fun, to convey their true selves, or even to conceal things about themselves.

Participants in Maloney’s studies described the many ways in which donning an entirely manufactured digital body can also act as a mask, helping users to circumnavigate adversity they face, yet find difficult to escape, in day-to-day life. In one of his studies, women and girls shared how the right avatar could allow them to socialise without typical levels of harassment they would otherwise encounter. As one participant reported, “Girls are more valued than guys because there are way more guys than girls in social VR or in the game world. So if I’m a male walking around, no one pays attention to me. But if I was like a girl, people would probably try to interact with me more.”

The story is similar for players of ethnic minorities, with participants able to use avatars to shield against racial abuse by muting their microphones and communicating non-verbally, while visually presenting an avatar that may not attract racial abuse. This can also go in the other direction, and allow users to embrace their ethnicity in spite of potential harassment; some users even take the opportunity to experiment with Whiteness, which one participant reported as a self-affirming experience: “I was always aware of me being minority at some level. I’ve always wondered, ’what would it be like to be a majority?’ So I have used white avatars in social VR. That did not end well. But surprisingly, that experience actually made me more confident and had a better understanding of who I was. I am Asian American and I don’t need to be white.”

Transgender and non-binary participants also commented on the way VR allowed them to more safely explore new bodies and gender expressions. One trans woman shared that in the real world “I tend to curb my personality and express a lot more in line with what I feel like is socially acceptable and normal. When I’m in social VR, I feel more comfortable just being how I feel at full blast.” More than being social lubricant alone, complete control over avatar presentation gives users that wish to try out a different gender performance a relatively safe space to do so, see how they feel, and gauge how others react to them in an environment that — unlike the real world — has zero risk of physical harm (although, these participants also pointed out that harassment is still very much a risk).

VR social spaces are still somewhat in that wild-west era most of us remember from the earlier days of the internet. As such, many parents have safety concerns about what their teens may be exposed to in these virtual worlds composed of both their peers and those from generations above them. These concerns aren’t without basis — there are many reported instances of adults making advances on younger users, and the nature of current moderating tools for VR spaces make harassment of all kinds difficult to police.

While it’s important to protect young users from online dangers, Maloney says that when speaking with participants about dealing with difficult interactions in VR, “every single one, one-hundred percent, said that social VR helps them be more socially adept and socially confident. And that’s great for a young person’s development.” While part of his work centres around making these spaces safer, paradoxically, it seems that in a space where physical harm is impossible, users can more safely practice their responses to both difficult people and harassment. This may present interesting research avenues for those primarily drawn to developmental topics.

Research about socialising in VR, like the technology itself, is still very young. While Maloney’s research highlights many of the intricacies, and indeed positive aspects, of these spaces, future research will also need to better assess the negative impacts of VR. For example, Maloney’s research found that (during the pandemic) teens in his sample were spending as much as 22 hours per week in VR during term time, and around 60 hours per week during the summer. Though recent research into traditional video games suggest little impact on wellbeing from long sessions of gaming, the fully immersive, fully embodied nature of VR may pose its own issues that are as of yet unidentified. Indeed, some participants mentioned concerns that long play times in VR might take time away from real-life interactions and skill building that can’t be replicated virtually. The complexity of this space demands much more high-quality qualitative research in order to properly understand the draw, the positives, and the negatives of socialising in VR.

Emma L. Barratt (@E_Barratt) is a staff writer at BPS Research Digest

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