The Jed Foundation issues report on preserving youth mental health in the metaverse

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Will the metaverse be good for the mental health of young people? That was the topic of a new research report aimed at those who will make the metaverse happen.

The 69-page report comes from The Jed Foundation (JED), in partnership with Raising Good Gamers (RGG) and with the support of the Morgan Stanley Alliance for Children’s Mental Health.

The report urges developers and other key parties to focus on metaverse environments that prioritize the mental health and safety of youth. The Jed Foundation is a national nonprofit that has been around for two decades. Its job is to protect emotional health and prevent suicide for teens and young adults.

The report, entitled “Can the Metaverse Be Good for Youth Mental Health?”, provides recommendations for policymakers, metaverse developers, caregivers, and other stakeholders to expand the benefits and safety of online spaces.

The report focuses on people aged 13 to 24, as they are often deeply engaged in metaverse-like spaces and developmentally susceptible to their potential social and psychological benefits and harms. With young people’s rising rates of mental health problems, including depression and suicide, it is critical to investigate the impacts that online spaces have, and the rise of the metaverse adds another layer that has not been investigated, said Rebecca Benghiat, president and COO of JED, in an interview with GamesBeat.

“The U.S. Surgeon General has called on the country to take a ‘safety first’ approach to the online lives of youth,” said Benghiat. “This report answers that call to action. As the time young people spend in these immersive spaces and augmented/virtual reality environments increases, there is greater urgency to
understand the interactions between these spaces and their mental health and provide actionable recommendations.”

Rebecca Benghiat is head of The Jed Foundation.
Rebecca Benghiat is head of The Jed Foundation.

What emerged from the research was a complex picture of the effects of engaging in the metaverse. Factors such as the type of content, personal characteristics (age, race, vulnerabilities, and protective factors), and time spent online play a role in how these spaces might positively and negatively impact a young person’s mental health. There are clear benefits—particularly for youth from marginalized communities who find connection online—and areas of real concern, such as the connection between time spent online and the risk of developing disordered eating.

Benghiat said one concern is that a lot of mental health information on social media sites is not correct.

“How do we use these spaces to get really high-quality information to people?” she said. “They’re consuming it on social media. I see that as an opportunity where you could build a community around amplifying the right information.”

With metaverse experiences like Roblox and Minecraft, there is a lot of open play. And the protections that are needed in such games will also be necessary in the metaverse, Pollack said.

“The conversation around the metaverse in these spaces is not dissimilar to the conversation around AI right now,” Pollack said. “We are in essence building the plane as we fly it and the concern is that if we get too far ahead of ourselves, we will not have addressed some of the key safety and ethical concerns, or take advantage of the opportunities that exist in these spaces to make them really pro-social.”

A panel of experts informed a robust set of recommendations to provide actionable guidance for various stakeholders to achieve a future that puts youth at the forefront of technology conversations.

Some of those recommendations include supporting federal regulation designed to assure metaverse user safety, fast-tracking metaverse literacy and online safety education programs by investing in research, fostering collaboration, engaging youth in decision-making, and more.

“Supporting young people’s mental health is fundamental to ensuring safe and inclusive experiences in these emerging spaces,” said Susanna Pollack, President of Games for Change. “Youth voice was key in our cross-sector approach to creating the research and the list of recommendations.”

“We look at boundary communities. It was a model that started with the Air Force. We looked at education. And we think a lot about the system’s levers and opportunities to reduce suicides and improve mental health,” said Benghiat.

Model of a youth-centered metaverse ecosystem.

The age range early on was 13 years to 30 with a focus on schools. But in the past two decades, the boundaries have become more porous, and the foundation is looking systematically into communities outside of schools. The digital landscape is now a big focus, and that led to the risks of the metaverse.

Games for Change helped the foundation put together an advisory board that can contribute to conversations and ultimately make recommendations for different stakeholders to support young people when it comes to mental health best practices.

It worked with the Connected Learning Lab at the University of California at Irvine, which focuses on gaming and online communities where young people are gathering. The researchers did a robust literature review and then delved into risks and protections. And it built a big advisory board.

“It was really important to us that we had voices in the room that represented policy, child development research, educators, and ultimately there was a separate session that young people were in the room,” said Pollack. “So their voices were heard as well.”

The panelists recommended setting and enforcing healthy lifestyle choices, educating oneself and family, and having open discussions on the impacts of immersive technologies on one’s well-being, and developing and distributing materials and resource guides for caregivers on metaverse use and digital literacy.

Joan Steinberg, president of the Morgan Stanley Foundation and CEO of the Alliance for Children’s Mental Health’s Advisory Board of Morgan Stanley, said in a statement, “There is an enormous need to prioritize and support youth mental health, especially within rapidly evolving online spaces like the metaverse. The findings of this report serve as proof points that we must continue to invest in understanding the impacts of the metaverse on children and teens.”

Susanna Pollack is president of Games for Change.

The report outlines best practice recommendations for a variety of stakeholder audiences. JED and Raising Good Gamers presented the findings to an audience of game developers at the Games for Change conference in New York City on July 20, 2023. I’m moderating the panel on the report at 1:45 p.m. Eastern time on that day.

“Young people like myself are struggling to find balance with our online lives,” said Mia Donohue, youth advisor to the report and 21-year-old rising senior at St. John Fisher University. “The metaverse can be a place where we can be our true selves, but some of my peers face devastating mental health impacts due to their relationships with tech—from bullying and isolation to thoughts of suicide. This is our reality—and because of that, we need to be a part of the conversations to ensure any recommendations or changes meet our needs. Talk to us, and we’ll tell you what we need, and this report accomplishes just that.”

As the metaverse becomes an increasingly integral part of our lives, it is crucial to prioritize the mental health and safety of young people in these digital spaces. The report provides a roadmap for stakeholders to implement best practices now and center the rights and mental health of youth in the development of our digital future.

“The metaverse is still relatively speculative. But what we do know is that it tends to replicate the existing inequities and the existing challenges and opportunities in existing environments in the real world and online,” Benghiat said. “We already know that risks and protective factors exist across a range of identities and positionality. And those things are replicated in any online space, especially as you get more immersive and more comprehensive, and so the challenge is how do we give you the greatest voice and the greatest amount of agency and safety in ways that will help to balance those potential risks and inequities.”

Benghiat said that controlling screentime is perhaps the least useful tool for measuring well-being or monitoring engagement. There are real concerns about real major overuse of screens in a way that impacts sleep. And that’s a huge potential area of concern. But beyond that, what’s the quality of the experience, the agency and safety that youth experience?”

She said that teens will often go online in search of better mental health, and so limiting screen time can get in the way of that.

“We want young people to feel connected and engaged,” Benghiat said. “We are looking intently at that community building and seeing that as a boundary community strength as opposed to a danger.”

Pollack added, “Absolutely. I think what I was trying to draw on is the research that has shown that young people are going online for information or mental health. I think the number is 87%. And that even going to an app to for the mobile health app is 64%. So we know that young people are going to these spaces, which suggests that there’s an opportunity within a metaverse environment to support their needs as it relates to their mental health. if we can create the structure and the experience that is safe and positive for them.”

The report offers detailed, actionable recommendations for stakeholders to foster a metaverse
that prioritizes the mental health and well-being of young people.

To summarize:
● Youth and their mental health must be placed at the center. The challenges today’s youth face are unprecedented, and online spaces can have adverse effects if not developed responsibly and safely. If we center youth and put the rights we have defined first, we can help foster their mental health and well-being.
● It will take all of us. There is good work being done across sectors, but no single stakeholder or intervention alone can protect youth mental health.
● Policy and regulatory frameworks should provide clear guidance and incentives to prioritize youth mental health—and penalties if frameworks are violated.
● Every youth’s rights in digital spaces, now and in the future, must be considered in platform design—not just to meet thresholds but also to support digital thriving through better safety measures and added transparency.
● Support is needed for research and timely data collection and analysis to identify and rapidly respond to youth mental health needs.

Lastly, the report said to equip caregivers, educators, influencers, mental health providers, and youth themselves with the information and resources they need to manage and make the most of digital spaces.

JED and partners engaged in a rigorous process, retaining the Connected Learning Lab (CLL), an Organized Research Unit at the University of California, Irvine, to conduct a comprehensive review of relevant and reliable research.

The road ahead

Making a metaverse focused on youth well-being.

Using CLL’s findings and input from both an interdisciplinary expert Advisory Board and a Youth Advisory Board, JED and RGG created detailed recommendations for how various stakeholders—including policymakers, tech companies, caregivers, and young people—can expand the benefit and safety of online spaces and work toward a future in which positive mental health is a priority in the design and building of online experiences.

“Our mandate when we started this as a group was really to think about what are the transactional achievable recommendations, with some level of priority for each group of stakeholders,” said Benghiat. “We don’t have deep literature on metaverse, which is one of the recommendations we need to look to funding and collaboration and data collection.”

Benghiat said the Youth Advisory Group was instrumental there because the researchers needed to make sure that they could think more about rights than prescriptions for the future. People have the right to go into a space and expect it to be safe and secure and private. The spaces should be inclusive and let people be their authentic selves or anonymous if preferred.

It took about a year to get to this point. A literature review of the report is expected in September, and then the hope is to create a series of conversations at gaming events.

Benghiat said she didn’t foresee immediate legislation coming for the metaverse yet on trust and safety, but she does believe policymakers are paying attention to the space in important ways. But some are concerned that regulation can accomplish much and that the correct tools are more around proper design and education of the participants.

A youth perspective

The youth mental health and the metaverse report is 69 pages.

Mia Donohue, a 21-year-old rising senior (majoring in public health and psychology) at St. John Fisher University, said she has been interested in the intersection of mental health and the metaverse. And she’s learned a lot of about it through online life.

“There’s definitely a need for an awareness. And I think through the advisory board itself, we really just tried to tackle it from different perspectives,” Donahue said in an interview with GamesBeat. “Not only from the youth perspective but also from the caregiver perspective. How are the parents juggling how to monitor their child’s internet usage.”

She added, “The way I grew up, I was like the guinea pig. I grew up when technology was starting to advance. So we’re still trying to figure out what’s good, what’s not. I think by talking more about the metaverse, within a family community, it makes it more of an approachable topic.”

There’s room for collaboration on the rules between the parent and the child, particularly since the parents might not be well informed. Donahue said she sees both positive and negative potential outcomes for the metaverse. She sees involvement in online communities as potentially good if you can gain resources for your mental health from them, but it’s also about balance. If you’re losing sleep over your online habits, then that’s a clue that you need a better balance.

The Jed Foundation turned to Donahue and others in an existing group setting where young people talked about their views on online communities and the metaverse. She said she doesn’t want to go online to a place that is lawless or toxic. In that sense, some places like social media can be places where you have to be prepared for abuse if you log onto them.

“It’s important to recognize people still have the freedom of speech,” she said. “They still are able to express their opinions. So with that in mind, I think it’s important to recognize those rights as an individual, but also be respectful and mindful, making sure there are safety precautions and making sure there is diversity, equity and inclusion for all persons along with accessibility.”

“Making sure you’re balancing things out is super important,” Donahue said. “I really just enjoyed brainstorming with my colleagues and seeing what the draft looked like and adding lived experiences to it was super exciting.”

Metaverse Interdisciplinary Advisory Board:
● Sun Joo (Grace) Ahn, PhD, Founding Director of the Games and Virtual Environments
Lab of the Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication, University of Georgia
● Monica Ann Arrambide, CEO and Founder, Maven Youth
● Jeremy Bailenson, PhD, Courtesy Professor of Education and Program in Symbolic
Systems, Stanford Graduate School of Education
● Jakki Bailey, PhD, Assistant Professor, University of Texas, Austin
● Rebecca Benghiat, JD, President and Chief Operating Officer, The Jed Foundation
● Eve Crevoshay, Executive Director, Take This
● Mark DeLoura, Games and Education Technology Consultant, Level Up Games
● Tanya DePass, Founder and Director, I Need Diverse Games
● Ashley Elliott, PsyD, Owner and Lead Consultant, Vivid Innovations Consulting, LLC
● Laura Erickson-Schroth, MD, MA, Chief Medical Officer, The Jed Foundation
● Carlos Figueiredo, Director of Player Safety, Minecraft; Executive Director and Co-
founder, Fair Play Alliance
● Kishonna L. Gray, PhD, Associate Professor in Writing, Rhetoric, and Digital Studies,
University of Kentucky
● Weszt Hart, Head of Player Dynamics, Riot Games
● Celia Hodent, PhD, Founder, Ethical Games
● Jennie Ito, PhD, Senior Product Policy Manager, Roblox
● Jay Justice, editor, game developer, consultant, and cosplayer from New York City
● Daniel Kelley, MFA, Director of Strategy and Operations, Center for Technology and
Society at the Anti-Defamation League
● David Kleeman, Senior Vice President of Global Trends, Dubit
● Raph Koster, MFA, CEO, Playable Worlds
● Rachel Kowert, PhD, Research Director, Take This
● Amanda Lenhart, Head of Research, Common Sense Media
● Remy Malan, Vice President of Public Affairs and Chief Privacy Officer, Roblox
● Michael P. Milham, MD, PhD, Vice President and Director of Research, Child Mind

● Alex Newhouse, MA, MS, Senior Research Fellow of the Center on Terrorism,
Extremism, and Counterterrorism; Middlebury Institute of International Studies at
● Brian Nowak, Managing Director, U.S. Internet Research, Morgan Stanley
● Mike Pappas, CEO and Co-Founder, Modulate
● Susanna Pollack, President, Games for Change
● Michael Preston, PhD, Senior Vice President and Executive Director, Joan Ganz
Cooney Center, Sesame Workshop
● Stephen Schueller, PhD, Executive Director, One Mind PsyberGuide
● Petr Slovak, PhD, Senior Lecturer in Human Computer Interaction and UKRI Future
Leaders Fellow at the Department of Informatics, King’s College, London
● Jessica Stone, PhD, RPT-S, clinical psychologist and mental health virtual reality
specialist; Co-Creator, CEO, and CPO, Virtual Sandtray, LLC
● Tiera Tanksley, PhD, Assistant Professor of Diversity, Equity, and Justice in Education,
University of Colorado, Boulder
● Katie Salen Tekinbaş, Professor of Informatics, University of California, Irvine,
Connected Learning Lab; Organizer, Raising Good Gamers
● Dawn Thomsen, Senior Vice President of Youth Strategies and Chief Engagement
Officer, The Jed Foundation
● Rachelle Vallon, Middle School Guidance Counselor and Wellness Coordinator, Quest
to Learn
● Janis Whitlock, PhD, MPH, psychologist, Emerita Research Scientist, Cornell University;
Senior Advisor, The Jed Foundation

Disclosure: The organizers of the event paid my way to New York, where I’m a speaker. Our coverage remains objective.

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