The Gen-Z Need Digital Mental Healthcare

And they need it now! 

            With the emergence of disruptive digital platforms like social media, online media and multipurpose smartphone applications, the lines between virtual and physical modes of communication are blurring. This is especially true of Generation Z who spend more than a majority of their days in their actual worlds online. From work to wellness, almost all their behaviors are guided by and undertaken on these virtual platforms. However, this is a shift we have very well seen coming and one that would be futile to fight. This is not the time to assign high school students with essays about the 5 cons of social media or how they’ll reduce their usage on those apps. They’ve probably scrolled through 5 reels in the time ChatGPT writes that for them. Rather, this is the prime point in time to question the safety, sustainability and intentions of the technologies that they will definitely and significantly be consuming.

An essential conversation in this domain has already begun with the prescient Future of Life open letter urging corporations to take a step back from developing Advanced AI technologies that could spiral out of control. It comes in concurrence with several unfortunate reports of coercion, harassment and other adverse situations as a result of human-AI interactions. On the occasion of this World Health Day that also coincides with the 75th birthday of the World Health Organization (WHO), let’s start by asking and attempting to answer the right questions about how these technologies are going to turn our lives around – especially for our digital natives. Individuals born between the mid-to-late 1990s and latter 2010 years, popularly known as GenZ, are finding themselves at the crux of an ever-demanding world today. A 2022 report by Ogilvy showed that 70% of Gen-Z in the US report that their mental health needs urgently need to be addressed and improved right now. These are people who have only recently, somewhere during their later adolescent years, become aware of the intricacies of maintaining positive mental health and more often than not, this awareness comes through personal negative experiences.

However, such awareness of their healthcare shortcomings also makes them equally willing to explore unconventional channels of mental care wherein 50% of respondents from the Ogilvy report (2022) were open to trying mindfulness and 26% were willing to do so using mental health apps. Multiple mobile-based applications catering to such mental wellness needs, like Calm, Headspace and more, have already established themselves in the market. They typically offer well-known activities like yoga and meditation in digital formats since consumers may have already practiced them physically before. Research shows that such mobile-based healthcare applications have a positive impact on developing mindfulness skills among consumers due to features like automations and reminders that encourage their daily usage of such apps.

However, with the emergence of and increasing accessibility to new-age technologies which utilize augmented and virtual realities, there is extensive scope for implementing digital mindfulness practices for enhancing consumer wellness.

The Metaverse lends itself as a ready solution in this domain. This is primarily because of its immersive and interactive nature that can engage users in more enriching ways and for longer durations than mundane technologies like the smartphone. In an attention economy littered with ever-diminishing concentration spans, achieving engagement and building that bridge between intentions and behaviors would certainly equate to hitting the jackpot. However, rapid technological development at the cost of unknown outcomes is something we should probably avoid to step away from a Matrix-like future. It is, therefore, imperative to ensure the wellness-focused developments of these technologies and their regulation for safe and responsible use by their consumers.

Research

While limited research exists in this area, a recent study conducted at FLAME University, Pune presents optimistic results. The study recruited a Gen-Z participant pool that had none to minimal previous exposure towards mindfulness. Dividing a group of 80 volunteers equally across two groups, the researchers tested whether a metaverse-based mindfulness exercise would show better wellness outcomes in comparison to the same mindfulness exercise delivered through a smartphone.

Volunteers from the first group were asked to participate in a 10 minute mindful breathing and thinking exercise using their smartphones on the Tripp app. The exercise was guided by an audio-based instructor and supported with moving graphics. Volunteers from the second group were presented with the same 10-minute mindfulness exercise, only this was delivered through the Meta Quest 2 oculus in the Metaverse. While the contents of the exercise remained the same, participants were encouraged to interact with elements in the immersive environment with head and hand movements.

Later, volunteers from both groups were recorded on wellness parameters like mood, satisfaction with life and psychological well-being. Results showed that the group exposed to the metaverse-based exercise performed much better on these wellness parameters individually and in comparison, to the mobile-based group. Such outcomes are only a confirmation of what is the beginning of the growth of augmented technologies. It is this promise of growth that needs to be guided with human well-being at the center. Future research must be conducted to fully understand the extent and variety of impact such innovations may pose for human life.

The theme for this year’s World Health Day, ‘Health for All’, is a call to celebrate meaningful improvements in the quality of life for all communities worldwide. Health and wellness are aspects of human life that will incessantly remain interconnected with every other function, thought and behavior. The new generations prioritize these wellness needs above all and expect the same from the peers, organizations and authorities around them. As they continue to explore this intersection between health and technology, it is a collective responsibility to ensure that this priority of human well-being remains at the forefront of all future advancements. So, please, if you’re undertaking an AI advancement project, for God’s sake, don’t fire your ethics team to cut costs.

 

 

BY: Tanaya Ranade, Dr. Preetha Menon & Dr. Garima Rajan

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