Immersive and addictive technologies, part 2

Download our inquiry response as a .pdf: CAF's response to the DCMS Committee inquiry into immersive and addictive technologies

Impact on individuals

Spending large amounts of time within online or virtual environments may affect people’s behaviour and ability to function in the real world. Most mental health and behavioural issues obviously predate the invention of immersive technologies, but there is emerging evidence that technology could exacerbate some of these challenges or present new ones.

Many of the social standards and rules that exist within our societies do not apply in the same way in online or virtual contexts, which can have problematic consequences. We are already seeing people act in ways that offline society would consider reprehensible, because they are empowered by anonymity and a sense of removal. This behaviour raises concerns about the emotional and psychological impact on victims. There are also deep ethical and legal questions about to what extent we should apply real-world rules and standards in immersive environments. For example, earlier this year a soldier was formally disciplined after killing his colleagues during a virtual training exercise. He is believed to be the first person punished under UK military law for offences in a virtual scenario.

AR and VR can exacerbate psychological dissociative disorders in which a person has recurrent feelings of being ‘outside themselves’ observing their own actions (depersonalization) or inside themselves but detached from their surroundings (derealisation). Similarly, while technology can be used as a tool to increase empathy, it could have the opposite effect if the unreality of virtual situations was constantly reinforced to the point where people became numbed to the feelings of others and then carried this attitude into real-world situations.

Another serious negative effect of spending large periods of time in virtual environments may be that people develop an active hatred of the physical world. If you spend the majority of time in an environment where you have been able to craft your identity carefully, it is easy to see how the real world (where you are tied to your physical body) could be unappealing.

Developing memory and understanding

In addition, spending long periods of time in a virtual environment could have negative effects on your physical wellbeing. Partly this is as a direct result of the reduction in real-world social interaction, which is almost universally recognised as a vital element of maintaining good mental and emotional health.

Those who spend large periods of time in these environments, particularly young people who do so during important developmental phases, may also fail to develop a proper understanding of social cues and find it harder to interact effectively in the real world.

Furthermore, there are other contextual elements of our real-world interactions that play a hugely important role in developing memory and understanding, and which may be missing in virtual environments such as smell, touch and external sounds.

Boy playing computer game

The full impact of immersive technology on social interactions and behaviour is not yet known. However, given the potential effect it could have on issues at the heart of many charities’ work, it is vital that they have the skills and resources they need. This will enable them to engage in the debate about how this technology is developed, and to work with policymakers and the technology industry to ensure that it ends up benefiting, rather than harming, our society.

Impact on charities

Immersive technologies could enable charities to be more effective and efficient. For instance, AR and VR (in combination with Artificial Intelligence) could be used to provide new interfaces or advice services for service users. These might not only be lower-cost, but could be more effective than human-led services at getting people the information they require. They could even be available 24 hours a day so that people could access them whenever they need them.

Immersive technology could have an enormous impact on the way that charities raise funds. AR and VR enable new forms of storytelling that creates powerful emotional bonds. A recent study that explored different ways of building empathy, an important link with altruistic behaviour, found that a VR experience produced longer-lasting empathetic responses than conveying the same material using more traditional methods. Additionally, there are obvious practical reasons for charity campaigns to incorporate immersive technology that is portable, accessible to people with disabilities and will prove increasingly affordable in the future.

17% have donated while playing. 58% are interested in donating while playing.

Source: Our research 'Giving through gaming'

Gaming and e-sports

Another area of immersive technology that is further developed than either AR or VR and likely to prove important for fundraising in coming years is gaming and e-sports. Giving through Gaming research found that players and developers are very open to the idea of supporting good causes through gaming.

We have already seen the creation of new games through charity partnerships, the donation of sales revenue to charity and games being used for sponsored challenges. For example, online platform JustGiving and four charities partnered together to launch a hub to offer players tools and resources to help make gaming for a good cause easy and engaging.

Charity streaming, similar to traditional telethons, with people broadcasting themselves playing games live on the internet while urging viewers to donate, has proved extremely successful in both raising money and awareness building. Streaming platform Twitch estimates more than $75m was raised for various charities on its service alone between 2012 and 2017.
In general, people respond better online to information and requests that come from peer networks. So if charities can use immersive technology effectively, their supporters can become advocates, fundraisers and content generators in order address some of the challenges of the attention economy.

The attention economy

Immersive technologies form part of the ‘attention economy’ – an array of sophisticated techniques competing for consumer engagement. In addition to charities having to address the negative consequences of the battle for attention directly, there are also likely to be wider, indirect consequences that will affect many organisations. Many charities, for instance, need to get across fairly nuanced and sophisticated messages about their work and the causes they are trying to address.

This task will be much harder in an online environment where it is difficult to keep anyone’s attention. Furthermore, our hunger for new content puts organisations under pressure to produce increasing amounts and ever more quickly but this is difficult for small organisations within civil society that operate with very limited resources.

Another challenge for charities is that the attention economy uses reward mechanisms (such as likes and shares) to stimulate the release of small amounts of dopamine – a chemical found naturally in the human body that sends signals from the body to the brain. But dopamine is important when it comes to charitable giving. One of the most widely accepted theories to explain philanthropy relies on the notion that donors get a psychological reward, or ‘warm glow’, in return for their gift. It is possible that the dopamine stimulation from new technologies and the warm-glow effect of giving could cancel each other out.

So if people were getting a feeling of reward simply by sharing social media posts, it may reduce their subsequent motivation for actually donating any money. This is similar to the questions people are asking about whether ‘clicktivism’ undermines traditional social action.

On a practical level, charities are at a distinct disadvantage in the attention economy. The platforms and apps that already have a huge hold over our attention guard it jealously. Increasingly these platforms are also enhancing their functionality (eg by adding payment mechanisms) so that you never need to leave them. So immersive technologies represent another step towards a model where your whole online experience is shaped by a limited number of gatekeepers.

Charities will still be able to get their message through, but all the power will be in the hands of the immersive platforms. This presents significant challenges if certain organisations get preferential or discriminatory treatment. We have already seen that technology companies are willing to tailor content to meet the demands of authoritarian regimes around the world so it is perfectly plausible that they could take a similar approach in side-lining charities they felt were problematic.

Rhodri Davies, Head of Policy
Bruce Rothberg, Senior Campaigns and Public Affairs Officer

Rhodri Davies

Rhodri Davies

Head of Policy

Rhodri leads Giving Thought, our in-house think tank focusing on current and future issues affecting philanthropy and civil society. Rhodri has spent nearly a decade specialising in public policy around philanthropy and the work of charities, and has researched, written and presented on a wide range of topics. He has a first-class degree in Mathematics and Philosophy from the University of Oxford.

Find out more about Rhodri


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