Generation Z is the first generation of true digital natives, and they are already familiar with VR technology. They’ve never known a world without smartphones and fast Internet, and only the oldest among them can remember what things were like before social media.
Maybe it’s no coincidence that Gen Zers report mental health challenges in higher numbers than members of older generations. According to a study commissioned by the American Psychological Association in 2019, 27 percent of Gen Zers reported their mental health as “fair” or “poor,” compared with just 15 percent of millennials (Gen Yers) and 13 percent of Gen Xers. Gen Zers ascribe their mental health challenges to real-world sources of stress, like news of mass shootings and sexual assaults that disproportionately affect younger people.
Like every generation before it, Gen Z holds the future in its hands. All of humanity will ultimately benefit from Gen Zers’ well-being. Which means it’s up to us to ensure that Gen Z has every opportunity to address the very real mental health challenges its members face.
These challenges will require many solutions. One that shows early promise is rooted in a type of technology that Gen Zers have eagerly adopted: virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR). Let’s take a look at why Gen Zer’s are set up to utilize VR technology to improve their mental wellness today, tomorrow, and beyond.
1. They Have Eagerly Adopted VR and AR
As early as 2016, a near-majority of Gen Z consumers had tried VR and AR technology, and 12% used it on a daily basis, according to data cited by Inc. Industry watchers expect some 60 million VR and AR headsets to ship in 2021, up from fewer than 10 million in 2016. Younger consumers make up a disproportionate share of early adopters.
2. They Are Self-Starters
Inc’s analysis also found that Gen Zers prefer to curate their own experiences and content. That plays to the strengths of VR, a customizable and immersive medium that allows users to explore on their own terms. And it enables what VR wellness solution Healium calls “anxiety self-management.” A Frontiers in Psychology study that researched Healium found a significant reduction in stress response after just four minutes of immersive VR therapy.
3. They Are More Willing to Acknowledge, Talk About, and Seek Help for Mental Health Issues
Gen Zers are much more willing than members of older generations to acknowledge and seek help for mental health concerns. According to the American Psychological Association study, Gen Zers (37%) sought mental health treatment at nearly twice the rate (22%) of Boomers and nearly three times the rate (15%) of older generations. They are also more open to traditional forms of treatment like talk therapy as well as trying newer solutions to their mental health issues like CBD oil for depression and hydroxyzine to treat anxiety.
Because they appear more willing to seek help, it’s fair to assume that Gen Zers are generally more open to newer or non-standard therapies that use technology like VR and AR. As they adopt these therapies, Gen Z may fill the cultural role for which they’re quickly becoming known — as trendsetters and tastemakers.
4. They Have Greater Exposure to Real-World Stressors
Members of Generation Z cite real-world stressors as significant contributors to their mental health challenges. Specifically, they cited negative events and trends that have become all but impossible to ignore in recent years: mass shootings at schools and gathering places frequented by young people, sexual assault and harassment that disproportionately targets younger individuals, the suicide epidemic, and climate change.
Gen Z is “closer” to these and other real-world crises. And, due to their youth, they’re certain to deal with them for longer than their older peers. As a result, they’re more predisposed to empathy than more world-weary generations. This is a condition that early research suggests can be shaped and enhanced with targeted VR therapy.
5. They Seek Social and High-Emotion Experiences
Despite being perfectly comfortable in isolated, digitized bubbles, Gen Z is a social generation at heart. Its members seek collective, high-emotion experiences wherever possible. As VR software manufacturer Yulio notes, this is an ideal use case for VR-based wellness initiatives that use technology to deliver truly authentic and immersive experiences while improving mood and productivity.
6. Social Validation Is a Key Motivator
Yulio describes another consequence of Gen Z’s social predispositions: the importance of social validation. Specifically, their social validation in the generation’s relationship with brands and technologies. For Gen Zers skeptical of mass marketing tactics and conventional branding, social validation is often the most important factor. Social validation aids in decisions to adopt or pass on a new product, service, or tech.
As a fundamentally social technology, VR is a perfect match for this bias. After a positive experience with VR-based wellness therapy, the average Gen Zer is likely to tell their friends about it. That is, of course, if their friends weren’t participating along with them already. Proponents of VR therapies and VR in general can work out the implications on their own.
7. The Pandemic Has Greatly Influenced Their Behaviors
Finally, we need to acknowledge the elephant in the room: the pandemic. Even as the pandemic itself fades into memory, habits learned during the ordeal could prove difficult to shake. One is the adoption, especially by younger people, of remote or virtual social experiences. These experiences align naturally with VR technology, and with the broader acceptance of telehealth and tele-wellness. In the future, making one’s therapy appointment might be as easy as strapping on a headset.
We’re Just Beginning to Learn About the Benefits of AR and VR for Gen Z
Virtual reality is not a brand-new technology. VR has been around in some form for more than 30 years. However, it — along with augmented reality, a newer tech — has really come into its own in the past 10 years. In the next 10 years, it is all but certain to improve in ways we can barely imagine today.
Because truly immersive, lifelike VR technology hasn’t been around for very long, we’re just beginning to learn about its potential to improve mental well-being. With more study, we should expect to uncover more good news about its capabilities. VR can benefit not only Gen Zers, but anyone willing to try out a new type of mental wellness routine.