Digital Detox 5: Virtual Reality

Digital Detox 5: Virtual Reality

The inconsistencies in both scientific and media related literature that examines the complex world of screen media use has demonstrated that it is extremely difficult to generate associations between how screen media behavior shapes an individual’s life experience. Scientific literature has lacked the ability to generate casual results because of the ever-shifting digital experience and mass amount of outcome measures that can be accounted for. Furthermore, media approaches research findings with an all or nothing rhetoric that instills fear, finger-wagging or even confusion for its readers.

For the purposes of this digital detox series, we took it upon ourselves to present relevant research on screen time. We’ve analyzed screen time’s current findings, the relationship between social media and distinct psychopathologies such as depression and anxiety, and the relationship between gaming, brain structure, addiction, and crystallized intelligence. Since little clarity has been provided by both the scientific and media communities, we decided to turn our research investigation to more conclusive evidence looking at screen time’s effects on structural brain changes. We hoped that this information could help us find conclusive data that linked changes in socio-emotional well-being to the amount of time spent on the screen (per platform) as evidenced through structural brain changes.

What we found was that that brain structure may be shaped by screen time and that various platforms may impact different structures that influence different socio-emotional responses. For example, we used cultural trends to analyze the outcome variables of anxiety and depression in relation to social media use. We then analyzed addictive behaviors that are often associated with gaming. We concluded that structural changes were present for the latter form of screen use.

Much to our surprise, we learned that the impacts of screen time may not simply be linked to negative socio-emotional implications. Instead, there is also evidence of positive relationships between the aforementioned outcome variables and screen time. For example, the “social nature of digital communication” on social networking sites “may be harnessed in some situations to improve mood and to promote health-enhancing strategies especially in non-depressed populations” (Hoge, Bickham, & Cantor, 2017). With regards to video games, evidence suggests that there may be a positive relationship between structural brain changes made through video gaining and intelligence; increased screen time spent using video games equated to increased amount of crystallized intelligence for verbal knowledge and skills.

Another example of the positive impact of screen time is exemplified through the medium of VR. Specifically, this form of screen time can teach students how to express themselves and interact with each other. For decades, clinicians, teachers, and facilitators, alike, ascribe to the typical teaching method of using role plays to teach emotional insight and empathy, two learnings the help shape positive social-emotional experiences. However, VR is changing this teaching landscape as it can create more in-depth and immersive environments for students to dive into in comparison to role plays. Callaham, Alpha’s director of social and emotional learning, argues that “social and emotional learning (SEL) in its current state doesn’t engender real feelings in students because it isn’t immersive” (Montgomery, 2018). Role play scenarios “lack verisimilitude or immediacy as students don’t take scenarios seriously because the other participants are their friends and therefore also know that the scenario is fake” (Montgomery, 2018) Furthermore, learnings are not generalizable – “students know the right answers to a scenario” yet they often struggle outside of the exercises completed in their training scenarios because the context of the interaction changes (Montgomery, 2018). Finally, the strength of VR is the simulation it provides, the ability to analyze the participants’ biometrics on stress levels, and the individualized data and feedback that is collected during the process. Additionally, the stigma surrounding behavioral issues is also remedied through VR as, having the opportunity to engage in a VR simulation feels much” different from ‘You have behavior problems,’ if, say, a student needed SEL remediation” (Montgomery, 2018).

The benefits of VR for socio-emotional learning is complemented by another study completed by Guido Makransky. Makransky’s studies suggest that VR can lead to better learning outcomes compared to traditional methods (Makransky et. al., 2017). Furthermore, his latest research shows that girls and boys learning differs greatly and it depends on the form and appearance of the virtual teacher that the child encounters through VR format. In his study of sixty-six 7th and 8th grade students (half female, half male) from Belgium, he found that the “student’s ability to identify with the appearance of the virtual teacher improves their levels of learning; specifically, the results show that boys’ concentrations and focus on tasks rises when their virtual teacher is a non-traditional teaching figure like a robot or drone” (Brixen, 2019). Conversely, girls “get more knowledge from VR-teaching when they are taught by a young, female researcher-type” (Brixen, 2019).

If VR improves levels of learning, it seems only beneficial to integrate this platform into resources that support growth in emotional intelligence. It is our hypothesis that increased insight, discernment, management and receptivity could reduce incidents of negative socio-emotional interactions and psychopathologies. Thus, future research should look into connections between emotional intelligence, positive socio-emotional responses and screen time use.


Brixen, J. (2019). In VR boys learn best when the teacher is a drone – girls learn better from virtual Marie. Retrieved June 3, 2019, from 

Makransky, Guido & Terkildsen, Thomas & Mayer, Richard. (2017). Adding Immersive Virtual Reality to a Science Lab Simulation Causes More Presence But Less Learning. Learning and Instruction. 10.1016/j.learninstruc.2017.12.007

Montgomery, B. (2018). Stanford Experiments with Virtual Reality, Social Emotional Learning and Oculus Rift - EdSurge News. Retrieved from 08-16-stanford-experiments-with-virtual-reality-social-emotional-learning-and-oculus-rift 

Back to blog