Will Second Life’s avatar therapy sessions further isolate us?

Christiaan Patterson

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A new approach in psychotherapy uses avatar therapists. As described in a recent posting by Popular Science magazine, instead of face-to-face interaction with another human being, mental health patients can now see their therapists in cyberspace.

This may seem to be a good idea at the moment, yet like almost every other technology, will most likely become another disintegrating factor to human interaction. Considering all the technological advances our society has seen over the past few decades, there is little surprise that we have arrived at this level of future medicine.

The concept was developed by the makers of Second Life, an interactive online game with multiple players, in an attempt to ease patients’ anxiety of talking with an actual person or in a real group setting. Virtual doctor offices provide more discrete sessions with voice chat becoming available in the very near future. The cost of these online meetings are about $100 for 50 minutes or if one already has a current Second Life account, they can pay in virtual money.

Sure, talking to a computer might ease anxieties or fears of admitting problems. However, lack of human-to-human communication might just lead to further isolation and disconnection from the real world. Instead of dealing with issues one might have, we now have the option of hiding behind computer screens that are capable of projecting any mood or image, completely the opposite of what might be felt.

This type of therapy has raised some questions regarding sustainability and benefits for the patients. Over the past two years, research by Preferred Family Healthcare shows a 97 percent success rate of adolescents finishing their group sessions with an avatar. In contrast, the completion rate with an actual human is a mere 37 percent. Patients seem to be more relaxed and open up easier when facing an avatar. In the psychological world, this could lead to better treatment plans for patients since doctors would be able to get to the root of an issue.

Perhaps one of the reasons why people have such a difficult time communicating with a therapist is the lessening of actual human contact. Our people skills are already being eaten away by the very technologies we invented to further our intellect. It is extremely ironic that with all the use of computers, cell phones, Smart cars, etc., we now have a video game-like therapy session to talk openly about being the isolated product we’ve become.