VR addiction

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Figure 1. Possible association between smartphone/online usage and productivity. (Image: Montag & Walla, 2016)

Virtual reality (VR) addiction is a form of digital addiction (DA) that is associated with the use of VR applications, whether for entertainment or social purposes. VR addiction could be a more powerful form of addiction when compared to other DAs due to the immersive nature of VR technology. It is a relatively new concern that some researchers have warned about due to VR becoming commercially accessible to the general public. [1] [2]

Addiction has its roots in biology; specifically, neurobiology. Neurotransmitters like dopamine produce sensations of pleasure, engagement, excitement, creativity, and the desire to investigate the world. Dopamine is released when a person takes risks, or encounter novelty - an evolutionary trait to reinforce exploratory behavior. It is also a motivator, released when there is the expectation of reward. Once the neurotransmitter becomes associated with a psychological reward loop, the desire to get more of that reward becomes the brain’s main concern. As an example, a commonly abused substance - cocaine - floods the brain with dopamine and blocks its reuptake. [3]

There are many forms of addiction. In the digital realm, video games or social networks are known to be addictive and can be as compelling as illegal drugs. By completely immersing the user in a world that might be better, prettier, and with risk-free fun, when compared to the real-world, virtual reality may increase the degree in which people feel a compulsion to continually indulge in virtual experiences. Video games are such an example of escapism, proving that millions of people enjoy spending time in fictional places. With VR, the user has the opportunity to explore these places with another level of immersion - something that could not be done before - and that can lead to an abandonment of the real world in favor of the simulated ones. [4]

Digital addiction

Digital addiction (DA) has become a series issue with a multitude of consequences for people who abuse technology. According to Ali et al. (2015), these consequences include “reduced involvement with their real life communities and lower Grade Point Averages due to its negative impact including procrastination, distraction, and poor time-management. People who feel insecure in real life often try to compensate in the digital world. When that later option fails, it reduces even more their self-confidence and self-esteem. Studies showed that addiction to Facebook has a negative impact on romantic relationships (leading to divorce in some cases) due to disclosure of private information, cyber-stalking and electronic surveillance by one’s partner.” [5]

Dr. Kimberly S. Young has classified online addiction into five different types: computer (games) addiction, information overload, net compulsions, cyber-sexual addiction, and cyber-relationship addiction. Social network addiction is still a relatively new phenomenon and would belong to the cyber-relationship category, while still including elements of others such as games. This DA has symptoms that are similar to those that occur in “traditional” addiction like mood modification, tolerance, salience, withdrawal symptoms, conflict, and relapse. [5]

The abusive use of digital media is also correlated with obesity, sleep problems, and increased aggression in children and adults. Furthermore, research presented at the National Academy of Sciences by Jeremy Bailenson of Stanford University indicates that children can acquire false memories in VR since the brain cannot differentiate between an actual or virtual experience. [6]

More research into DA and the impact of the Internet and video gaming on a developing person is still necessary, but several researchers are starting to see the side-effects of digital media use, such as depression, anxiety, ADHD, and autism spectrum disorder. This leads to thinking that VR, with its highly immersive environments, virtual reality games, and social capabilities could become the next ultra-addictive medium. [6]

The use of digital technologies has become a common thing all over the world. Smartphone and Internet use, for example, are constant sources of distraction, contributing to a disconnect with the real world. People stop communicating and experiencing the current moment, losing the skill of finding beauty in the simple things of life. The term Internet Gaming Disorder (IGD) has even been included as a new disorder in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM). IGD is described as a “general over usage of diverse aspects of the Internet. Generalized Internet addiction is characterized by procrastinating over important daily tasks by aimlessly surfing or posting on online social networks.” [7]

These digital technologies - VR included - can indeed be useful and make people more productive if not overused. Montag and Walla (2016) suggested that productive use becomes overuse when a person is getting distracted on a minute-to-minute basis. They hypothesize an association between smartphone or online usage and productivity (Figure 1) has having an inverted U-function, with a middle point in which the right technology usage promotes the maximum productivity. [7]

Distraction caused by digital gadgets and technologies have a disrupting effect on flow, that is accompanied by a state of deep concentration characterized by positive emotions. Montag and Walla (2016) also state that digital technologies may cause damage to social functioning in addition time waste and addiction. They cite a 2014 study that noted that “humans can better assess trustworthiness in human faces compared to avatars which are more and more often used as interaction partners on diverse online platforms. This underlines the need for real human interaction compared to virtual social interactions.“ [7]

VR and addiction

VR has the potential for a large number of positive applications. It has been shown to provide pain relief to patients with severe burns; paralytic people could experience moving once again in the virtual world; the technology can provide safe environments for training, and help people suffering from PTSD, bipolar disorder and eating problems. At the same time, there needs to be caution and attention to overuse and addiction, of people becoming lost in the virtual environment since VR is the definition of escapism. [4] [8]

People who are not fulfilled in the real world could escape into another world, where they might get a greater sense of fulfillment. The fact that in VR people can experience themselves differently, building their ideal selves through an avatar and affectively connect with a virtual world can lead to addictive behavior. [1]

Currently, there is no consensus about VR addiction, with some specialists noting that VR side effects experienced by some people may be a detractor from its addictive qualities. However, this might not be true when the VR technology improves upon current models and VR sickness is greatly reduced or completely avoided. [1]

There are some areas that could facilitate the addictive nature of virtual reality: VR and sex, VR and gambling, and VR and gaming. Sex is a highly reinforcing and rewarding activity; in conjunction with the immersive nature of VR, it could lead to overuse and addiction. Gambling is another area that needs attention. Online gamblers could want a more immersive gambling experience, surrounded by the sights and sounds of an offline gambling venue. Finally, gaming is one of the main concerns in VR. Like the previous two areas, there are already lots of people who experience genuine addiction to gaming. VR could escalate that problem, having players spend a significant amount of their waking time in VR instead of real life. [2]

The addictive nature of video games is due to the fact that they are full of novelty, risk-taking, reward-anticipation, and exploratory behavior. This increases the production of dopamine and the positive sensations associated with it. Indeed, people have died due to their video game addiction. Kotler (2014) suggested that “pretty soon, we’ll have video games that trigger endorphins and anandamide and serotonin and dopamine and all the rest. This will happen because our neuro-imaging and sensing technologies are experiencing their own version of Moore’s Law and this will continue to enhance our understanding of how to control the brain’s internal chemistry. It will happen because we are starting to understand a great deal more about flow itself, and what triggers the state. And it will happen because our games are becoming more immersive, more virtual, more like reality.” Since flow states are associated with deeply meaningful experiences, and VR and VR gaming could generate them, this could mean that VR has the potential to become more fun and meaningful than reality. Consequently, in the future, large segments of society could live more in the virtual world than in the real world. [3] [4]


  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 Sutton, M. (2017). Virtual Reality addiction threat prompts cautious approach as VR nears 'smartphone-like' take-off. Retrieved from http://www.abc.net.au/news/2017-02-10/addiction-risks-as-vr-gets-set-to-take-the-market-by-storm/8252614
  2. 2.0 2.1 Griffiths, M. (2016). Feature: Can virtual reality really be addictive? Retrieved from https://www.virtualreality-news.net/news/2016/jun/28/can-virtual-reality-really-be-addictive/
  3. 3.0 3.1 Kotler, S. (2014). Legal heroin: Is virtual reality our next hard drug. Retrieved from https://www.forbes.com/sites/stevenkotler/2014/01/15/legal-heroin-is-virtual-reality-our-next-hard-drug/#4ff636611a01
  4. 4.0 4.1 4.2 Tisdale, A. (2016). Gaming in virtual reality could be the very real death of you. Retrieved from https://www.vice.com/en_au/article/4w5g7d/gaming-in-virtual-reality-could-be-the-very-real-death-of-you-911
  5. 5.0 5.1 Ali R., Jiang N., Phalp K., Muir S., McAlaney J. (2015). The emerging requirement for digital addiction labels. International Working Conference on Requirements Engineering: Foundation for Software Quality, Springer International Publishing: 198–213
  6. 6.0 6.1 reSTART. As virtual reality rolls out, will addiction follow? Retrieved from https://netaddictionrecovery.com/the-problem/virtual-reality-vr/vr-addiction.html
  7. 7.0 7.1 7.2 Montag, C. and Walla, P. (2016). Carpe diem instead of losing your social mind: Beyond digital addiction and why we all suffer from digital overuse. Cogent Psychology, 3
  8. Marchant, J. (2017). How VR could break America's opioid addiction. Retrieved from http://www.independent.co.uk/news/long_reads/how-vr-could-break-americas-opioid-addiction-a7707866.html

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