Below you'll find a few highlights from my dissertation, these are snippets from the actual document which will be officially published in late Jan 2022.
Shoutout to my Mom, who let me play hours upon hours of runescape as a child, would’ve thought that the innocent gameplay of a child in an early 2D metaverse would lead to a dissertation with implications of the future of modern interactivity and youths engagement in technology.
Title: A Youthful Metaverse: Towards Designing Safe, Equitable, and Emotionally Fulfilling Social Virtual Reality Spaces for Younger Users.
Dr. Andrew Robb (Committee Chair)
Dr. Guo Freeman (Commitee Co-Chair)
Dr. Sophie Joerg
Dr. Larry Hodges
This dissertation research presents one of the first empirical investigations into understanding young users’ experiences in social VR and the broader metaverse. Its goal is to identify the challenges and risk young users face when using VR and to generate design recommendations for creating safer, more equitable, and more fulfilling experiences for them. These findings demonstrate how social VR (e.g, the metaverse) is the modern version of a playground, one which affords immense levels of interactivity and serves as the ultimate social developmental tool.
RQ1: How do young users use social VR (e.g., in terms of frequency, experiences, and common activities)?
RQ2: How, if at all, does the use of social VR affect the social lives of young users in various ways (e.g., risks of harassment, privacy concerns, friendships, romance, and psychological well-being)?
RQ3: What requirements, features, and mechanisms can be identified for designing safer and more supportive social VR spaces for young users?
It should be noted that these highlights are based off of the participants in this research, which may not be representative of all youth who use VR. It should also be noted that concepts such as equity, care for participants, and ethics were of great importance in this dissertation. Often young users of technology have little to no input on the design, iteration, and age-appropriate considerations as technology is developed. In this dissertation, I focused on youth-centered innovation, placing the care and consideration of young users at the forefront of the nine recommendations this work has yielded. It is my hope that this work and others like it will provide youth-centered innovations that will not only have implications for the ever-evolving metaverse but also the field of human-computer interaction and immersive technology, all designed to support and empower youth.
Directly answering RQ's:
RQ1: How do youth use social VR (Frequency, experiences, and common activities)?
-Youth in these studies spent ample time in VR (22hrs/week) and social VR (16hrs/week), with self-reported use during the summer averaging 63hrs/week (Studies 1, 3, 4).
- Social VR platforms were found to be the most frequently used forms of VR content for teenagers in these studies (e.g., games, education).
- Youth are digitally intuitive and use social VR in unconventional manners such as sleeping in VR
RQ2: How, if at all, does the use of social VR affect the social lives of young users (e.g., risks of harassment, privacy concerns, friendships, romance, and psychological well-being)?
- Youth see social VR as a phenomenal tool for social development, including both positive (e.g. confidence, interpersonal communication) and negative aspects of sociality (e.g., anxiety, bullying, inappropriate social behaviors) (Studies 1-3).
- Overall youth feel socially empowered in the offline world because of their interactions in social VR (Studies 2, 3).
-Social VR is viewed as a tool for well-being and self-exploration (Studies 2, 3,4)
RQ3: What requirements, features, and mechanisms can be identified for designing safer and more supportive social VR spaces for young users (Study 4)?
- Youth believe the criticism of VR from adults is unwarranted and impedes the progression of VR, and they further recommend critics experience VR and social VR platforms.
- Youth generated nine design recommendations for improving the design for the most vulnerable young users, the performance of VR, and increasing the number of affordances.
A few more highlights:
Three themes guide this next section, these are snippets from my dissertation.
-Modern Playground for the Digitally Intuitive
-Social VR: the Ultimate Social Developmental Tool
-Design Recommendations for a Safe, Equitable, and Emotionally Fulfilled Metaverse
The Modern Playground for the Digitally Intuitive
Why would a teenager choose to sleep in VR? The answer to this question and to RQ1stems from youth being digitally intuitive  because, unlike adults who had instructions on how to use technology and the norms in them, youth have no such reference point when it comes to technology. Therefore, their efforts, behaviors, and motivations are guided solely by their intuition and the affordances offered by the technology and environment , explaining why a grown adult would find sleeping in VR odd but a teenager would not. Teens do not limit VR to solely a gaming platform; in fact, at times VR offers, or affords, experiences that the offline world is incapable of or experiences which would seem difficult for such reasons as money, time, safety, endurance, distance, and convenience. Teens sleep in VR for a several reasons, the first being it is a unique experience that easy to engage in and experience. Sleeping is an everyday activity for most, involving fairly mundane mechanics, so falling asleep is an easy, familiar task. Second, is the experience itself; in VR users sleep in worlds specifically designed for this activity, ones that include soft soothing music, dark backgrounds/settings, and, in some, changes in the environment creating the experience of waking up in a different place. Further, in these worlds others do not typically bother the sleeper. The third reason for sleeping in VR is the ability to feel connected to others. Rice et al. demonstrate how the exploration of sociality and relationships is core to adolescent development , further explaining why sleeping in a room with strangers is important to teens: It helps them feel connected to other human beings in a safer environment than the offline world. A close equivalent in the offline world to sleeping in VR is sleeping on a plane and arriving at a new destination. However, for teenagers, there are a several reasons why these two are not the same. First, sleeping on a plane requires money; most teenagers do not have the expendable income for frequent plane rides where they wake up in entirely new places. The second reason is time; although a flight duration can vary, it requires additional time to travel to and from the airport. Sleeping in VR is much less cumbersome, and teens can sleep without leaving home. The third and arguably the most important reason is safety; the United Nations, the US Federal Aviation Administration, and numerous airlines consider unaccompanied minors a vulnerable population when traveling alone due to the risks they are exposed to, and care is taken to ensure minors are protected. Sleeping in VR is a much safer option for this population. It is one of the many activities explaining why social VR is the modern playground for teens, a phenomenon that can be explained by the Basic Psychological Needs Theory (BPNT).
Social VR: the Ultimate Social Developmental Tool
Over the course of this dissertation, I have spent time researching adult perceptions of youth in social VR, conducting hundreds hours of participatory observations, speaking with them individually, and in the final study tracking their use over the course of a month. In each stage of this research, one glaring fact has repeatedly emerged: social VR is a phenomenal tool for social development. It is important to note that it incorporates both the positive (e.g., well-being, confidence, interpersonal communication) and negative (e.g., anxiety, bullying, inappropriate social behavior) aspects of social development as evidenced by comments from the participants; however, a quote from one in Chapter Six highlighted the benefits of sociality, regard less whether positive or negative, because it is experiential learning:
“VR is also really cool because it can help people in ways that people don’t realize. Like for some things I’ve seen, it can really help people grow. It can help people become more socially adept and more comfortable with people, it can help them learn to trust [...and not trust people].”
I am not asserting that negative experiences are beneficial to teenagers but rather the experiential learning that occurs from these interactions is because youth are able to role-play in a manner where the social situations have little to no harm on their offline lives or physical health. Interestingly, in addition teenagers also commented on how practicing in social VR translates to the offline world, leading to the question about why and how would youths’ social adeptness in social VR translate to the offline world. A few theoretical reasons support and BPNT directly answers RQ2. The first and easiest connection is the concept of VR itself. Virtual reality is at its core a tool that, until the recent developments of VR and primarily social VR, was mainly used for training, simulation, and exposure therapy [137, 173, 174]. These uses support and strengthen the claim that social VR is a phenomenal social developmental tool; in fact, VR has been recognized for its for experiential learning through training and repetition . From this perspective, social VR provides different levels of experiential learning supporting social development, the first being the variability in the interaction and people one can encounter. Most, if not all, social VR platforms are open homogeneous worlds, meaning all of the users are on the same server and, thus, the opportunity for encountering others in a different time zone or from another part of the world is relatively high if both users are on the platform at the same time. The interactions also vary, again involving both social and antisocial behavior; for example, bullying has been documented in this dissertation as well as an instance of virtual sexual assault. However, the majority of interactions are social although they can differ across the range of normal. For example, in some cultures it is normal to stand close to someone when speaking with them ; this behavior and others are what teens are able to encounter in role play in social VR, which, in turn, prepares them for interactions in the offline world.
The second theoretical reason lies in the concepts of immersion and presence, meaning the relationships, interactions, and behaviors in the metaverse are considered real to the users. There are many possible explanations for this phenomenon, but in this dissertation I adopt Slater et al.’s definition that ”immersion provides boundaries within which [presence can occur” . This means that users must first be fully immersed to have presence, and from this presence other effects occur, such as the memory of a prior social interaction. Scholarship involving memory recall in VR has explored its effects on spatial memory in the virtual world  and informational memory in the offline world , but as of 2021 little to no work has explored the lingering social effects or social recall translated from the social VR environment to the offline world. However, prior work has demonstrated that higher levels of immersion and presence lead to behavioral, cognitive, and perceptual changes in a user [22–25]. One could conclude that due to the high levels of VR immersion and presence that the social interactivity facilitated by social VR demonstrates social learning which translates to the offline world as illustrated in Figure 7.1. However, it is important to note the opposite is not true as Slater et al. noted: immersion is the catalyst for presence  but the effect in reverse has not been widely studied.
Approximately 90% of the teenagers who participated in the research conducted for this dissertation said social VR was a major benefit to their psychological well-being, helping them stay connected with friends, allowing for long-distance romance, and helping them to feel more socially confident. Overall, they view social VR as a positive experience. Based on these comments, my data suggest that the overwhelming majority of teens perceive social VR as a beneficial developmental tool. While there were documented accounts of bullying, harassment, and virtual sexual assault, these negative experiences occurred far less often then the positive experiences.
Design Recommendations for a Safe, Equitable, and Emotionally Fulfilling Metaverse
There are nine total recommendations but I've only included a few here:
Recommendation One. Naturally Self-Separate Via Environmental Design. This first recommendation supports age-centered design and curate activities which focus on a target age group as each has their own unique developmental needs as seen in Figure 7.3.
Age groups are generally separated into tweens (10 to 12 years old), teens (13 to 18 years old), and the over 18 population. The idea of targeted age group supports Beals and Bers, who provide six important design features for creating virtual worlds for children and youth: purpose, communication, participation, play, artifacts, and rules . Depending on the age group, one of these six may be of more value than the others. For example, purpose for teens revolves around “identity,” while purpose for a young child should mirror their “real life goals.” In addition, another implication emphasizes a framework of affordance, interaction, and content. For example, the youngest users are likely to have more physical energy, and such games like GorillaTag which demand significant physical movement would be preferred for this age group. As Southgate et al. pointed out, special affordances of the technologies, modes of social interaction within the environment, and content in the environment should be used to evaluate the developmental appropriateness of any immersive environments for children . It should be noted that this recommendation is not calling for separate social spaces but spaces that permit open entry to any age group; if designed correctly, the affordances of each age environment will attract the appropriate group.
Experiencing Social VR Together with Loved Ones and Friends. This dissertation highlights a few experiences of shared VR experience with parents and youth; for example, in Study 1 , I found that parents and guardians experienced social VR platforms openly with their children. This togetherness seemed to help minors interpret and better manage unwanted and/or unfamiliar interactions. It also seemed to strengthen the relationship between parents/guardians and minors. In this sense, design features that encourage minors to experience social VR with their loved ones and friends would be help protect them from risks in social VR as well as better prepare them to deal with misinformation and unwanted experiences. In addition, prior work conducted by Ringland et al. has demonstrated that the involvement of parents or guardians in children’s virtual experiences helps children distinguish between “real” and “unreal” experiences .
Recommendation Three. Educating Youth on Digital Literacy for VR. Continuous education on social VR and broader immersive technologies is also needed for creating safe online social spaces for minors. Such technologies are increasingly embedded into young people’s everyday social lives. In this sense, tutorial and training modules specifically designed for minors seem to be necessary. In addition, translating concepts from other forms of media such as sharing information online and setting strong privacy controls is needed. As VR itself has been commonly used for training for stressful situations , platform specific training focused on safe interactions could help mitigate potential risks.
A few limitations of this work:
Youth are an incredibly interesting group to study in this line of research; however, because of their age we included addition ethical protections to ensure their privacy was maintained and that we complied with research ethics and platform guidelines. Most of the data collected in this study were qualitative, with the final study quantifying the previous findings. In addition, as the data were collected anonymously to protect the identity of the participants, it is possible that the teenagers were not teenagers as users self-reported their age and information. The relatively high number of youth in social VR could be due to the fact that all social VR platforms are free-to-play experiences, potentially creating issues among groups. Additionally, as the work in this dissertation relates to ages 13 to 18, a particularly wide age range involving much growth and development, future work should explore changes using a smaller age range. I will add that the findings from this study may relate to youth younger than 13, as it is possible that Study 1 and Study 2 included younger age groups. Finally, these findings may not be representative of all teenagers as these participants were enthusiasts of VR technology and recruited from online groups where enthusiasts interact and, thus, may involve self-selection bias.
As this is the first work focusing on understanding youth in social VR with extensions to broader VR concepts, there are multiple avenues for future research investigating youth and immersive technology. In no particular order, I have outlined a few future directions remaining to explored:
-What are the effects of VR on various age groups under 18?
-How does VR integrate into home life (e.g., tensions, bonding)?
-How do VR and social VR affect youth on a physiological level?
-How do more marginalized youth perceive and use VR?
-What are the implications of a teen-centric environment?
-Who is the governing body for youth? (e.g., United Nations)?
-How can XR hardware be designed specifically for youth?
-How, if at all, can VR be integrated into educational environments?
-What, if any, are the physical effects of XR on youth?
-What are potential mitigation solutions for the harm caused to youth in the metaverse?
-How do we protect the anonymity and identity of youth in the metaverse?
-What are the long-term effects of XR on youth?
My goal for posing these questions is that they lead researchers to explore how XR technology and the broader metaverse can be developed to build experiences and devices which promote safety, equity, and emotional fulfillment for youth.