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Beenish Syed
CST 300 Writing Lab
February 5, 2018
Virtual Reality Addiction – an ethical dilemma

Virtual reality has brought us to the cusp of a technological revolution that will

eventually change how humans live, think, work and interact with one another. Up until now our

interaction with the internet has been two dimensional and was limited to the handheld screens of

our smart phones or computers. Virtual reality is going to dramatically change how we surf the

web, socialize with friends, shop, and get education. Thanks to the power of human imagination,

through VR we will get a full immersion experience in a completely imagined environment.

VR provides a fascinating experience but it requires us to strap a device in front of our

eyes and be isolated from the real world. There is a risk of having people stay in their houses

with a VR headset strapped to their eyes and enjoying the virtual world endlessly. For claim of

resemblance we can look at our use of smartphones. We already see people walking down the

streets eyes glued to their phones, earplugs in their ears completely immersed in their phone and

oblivious to the world and reality around them. Phone addiction is linked to some serious mental

health risks. A study conducted by Journal of Computer-Meditated Communication found that if

smartphones were taken away from young people they exhibited behavior of ‘withdrawal’

(Clayton, Leshner & Almond, 2015). Another study shows that increased screen time is related

to increased depression and suicide rates in young people (Twenge, Joiner, Rogers & Martin,

2017). reStart is a rehabilitation center near Seattle that helps people, mostly young men who are

struggling to escape the temptations of virtual world. These are the people whose addiction has

spiraled out of control and by the time they come to reStart they are withdrawn, depressed, and

socially anxious, have suicidal thoughts and are incapable of helping themselves. Their social
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life is entirely online, their family relations have been destroyed and they do not have a clue of

how to build normal and healthy relationships (Green, 2017). Now VR is going to be more

consuming than smartphones. As Professor Jeremy Bailenson of Stanford University told CBS

that VR causes more behavior changes, causes more engagement, causes more influence than

other media and is potentially more addictive than videogames and smart phones. (“How virtual

reality can change”, 2016). So here is an ethical dilemma, with VR quickly gaining momentum

in becoming mainstream and it being more addictive than smartphones, should the tech

companies be regulated to make VR non addictive? Or should the consumers themselves be

responsible for avoiding VR addiction?

Tech companies are eager to bring virtual reality to mainstream. For the tech companies

it is a claim of fact as the numbers show that consumers have a growing interest in VR

technology. They can also see the benefits of VR technology in many different fields like

medicine, education, entertainment and retail. The tech companies claim to bring entertainment

and convenience for the masses. Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg has a goal of getting 1 billion

people to use VR which is 100 times more than the current VR users. Cheaper prices and better

user experience will make Oculus Go more accessible for the masses which makes Facebook’s

future very promising in VR. Microsoft is another company determined to make VR work for

mainstream consumers. Microsoft is developing virtual reality headsets that will run Windows

Mixed Reality software and will be compatible with cheaper computers, will run on laptops, and

will not require dedicated graphic cards (Eadicicco, 2017). Major tech companies like Google,

Microsoft, Sony, Apple, Samsung and others want to develop a platform that will surpass the

utility and appeal of smartphones. As reported by International Data Corp. international revenues

for virtual reality are expected to increase by a 100 percent or more over the next four years and
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predictions are that VR gaming will reach a revenue of $45.09 billion by year 2025 (Stone,

2017). Since not one company has come out as the clear winner of VR yet, the opportunity

awaits for developers to win over a massive audience and many companies are competing to win

that spot.

The other major stakeholder of this issue is the society or consumers. Virtual reality has

definitely piqued consumers’ interest. For consumers it is a claim of definition as for them virtual

reality is the latest technology which is fun to use and makes life easier. Consumers expect the

companies to exercise the principle of beneficence in research and design. As defined by The

Belmont Report which is a command in ethical principles of working with other people,

beneficence is the responsibility of designers and researchers to ensure the safety and well-being

of participants (Salganik, 2014). This report was developed in 1974 for ethics in biomedical and

behavioral research but since ethics for technology research are not well established this should

be used as a guideline in this field too. Consumers’ interest in virtual reality goes way beyond

just gaming. They are interested in utilizing VR for travel, shopping, entertainment, education

and home design. According to a survey by Greenlight VR done on 1200 people for their interest

in virtual reality 61% were interested in VR gaming, 73.5% were interested in travel and tourism,

65.9% in home design and 63.9% in education (Takahashi, 2016). For VR to weave into people’s

everyday lives this technology has to make people feel comfortable and safe.

Consumers are asking that the tech companies should make sure that VR is not addictive.

Tristan Harris who was a former program manager at google acknowledges that Silicon Valley is

engineering phones, apps and social media to get people hooked to them (Cooper, 2017).

Founding President of Facebook Sean Parker told Axios in an interview that him and other

executives made a “social-validation feedback loop” to make Facebook addictive (Guynn, 2018).
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Former employees of tech companies such as Google and Facebook are pushing the tech

companies to develop standards for ethically designing technology that discourages addiction

and they also want to incorporate industry legislative and regulatory lobbying. The Center for

Humane Technology teamed up with the non-profit Common Sense in a campaign called ‘Truth

About Tech’, to advocate for children and families in the digital times. James Steyer the CEO of

Common Sense told CNN that they are not anti tech rather they just want tech companies to

change their intentional influence to addict and manipulate (O’Brien, 2018). Consumers call to

action for the tech companies can be viewed under Kant’s ethics that was developed by a

philosopher Immanuel Kant. Kant believed that a person acts from a goodwill when they act

from a sense of moral obligation. He believed that in general everyone acts in self-interest and

that is just our natural inclination but if someone chooses to do the right thing just because it is

the right thing to do then their action adds value to the world. Kant states that one should not

treat people as a means to one’s own ends. So applying this ethical framework to the tech

companies making smartphones and virtual reality addictive on purpose is using people for their

own benefit. Evidence shows that tech company workers who helped make the technology so

addictive try to protect themselves from the addiction of smartphones and social media. Justin

Rosenstein a 34 year old tech executive has tweaked his laptop’s operating system to block

Reddit, has banned himself from snapchat and has self-imposed limits on his Facebook use. He

is the one who created the Facebook ‘like’ button and is fully aware of its allures and calls it

“bright dings of pseudo-pleasure” (Lewis, 2017). If technologists are trying to save themselves

from this addiction it is only rational to want the same for the rest of the society. Since virtual

reality is still a newer technology they can work towards making sure it is not addictive for the

masses.
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The pros of this option is that tech companies do have the resources to spend time and

money into research and then making virtual reality non-addictive. It is easier for them to make

the VR technology non-addictive to begin with rather than the society facing the addiction

dilemma later. On the other hand we need to keep in mind that virtual reality is innovative. It

brings so many benefits with it. If we expect the tech companies to invest time and money in

doing research to make VR non addictive then this process slows down innovation. Innovation is

important, it solves world’s problems and improves standards of living. “Worldwide

organizations such as OECD have identified innovation as a key strategy for growth and

sustainability in the current global economic environment” (“Innovation: Efficiency and

increased value”, n.d.). We cannot bog down the process of advancement by placing this extra

burden on the tech companies. And even if the tech companies in U.S. are regulated to make

their technology non-addictive we cannot make companies worldwide follow the same rule. And

then other companies’ products will come to the market sooner and will still attract consumers to

those addictive products.

The tech companies and their shareholders, on the other hand say it is primarily the

consumers’ responsibility to not become addicted and the tech companies should not be

regulated. ReCode’s Ed Lee and Kawaski’s CEO Ross Gerber both insist that it is the parents’

responsibility to watch their children’s use of social media and limit screen times. They equate it

to the older issue of watching too much T.V. being unhealthy for children and fast food causing

obesity (CNBC video, 2018). Gabe Zichermann who is the CEO of Onward envisions to foster a

world where well-balanced relationships between technology and ‘real life’ make everyone

happier, healthier and better connected (Zichermann, 2018). He promotes tech companies’ option

that users must take responsibility of their own choices. People have the agency and tools to limit
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their use of virtual reality. Under care ethics tech companies’ option makes sense. Care ethics

was developed by Carol Gilligan an American ethicist and psychologist. This is a relationship-

based approach to ethics that righteousness of an act is based upon how much good it does to

those closely related to us. According to care ethics people should care about their children,

spouse, or other family member’s overuse of such technology and help them break their

addiction. Gary Small who is a professor of psychiatry at UCLA says our brains crave the virtual

world the same way as drug addiction. The excitement of getting a notification on social media

releases dopamine which is a neurotransmitter, which augments the behavior and makes people

crave more such stimulation (Davidow, 2012). So why treat tech addiction differently than

cigarette smoking, heroin addicts, porn addicts and alcoholics? If all of the others are responsible

for their own addiction then why don’t people want to take responsibility for tech addiction as

well? Plus tech companies’ aim is not to turn the society into tech addicts rather they want to

solve world problems through innovation and bring the world together. Just recently Facebook

announced a change in the Facebook news feed algorithm. Mark Zuckerberg wants to make sure

that instead of just passively watching videos and reading articles, people build meaningful

connections on Facebook (Zuckerberg, 2018). To achieve this they are making changes to the

Facebook news feed, even if that means people spending less time on Facebook.

Tech companies’ claim of bringing convenience and entertainment through virtual reality

can be viewed under utilitarianism ethical framework. Although forms of this doctrine have been

debated since ancient times, the modern theory is linked to the British philosopher John Stuart

Mill. According to Mill “Actions are right to the degree that they tend to promote the greatest

good for the greatest number” (“Notes on Utilitarianism”, n.d.).It provides an amazing medium

of entertainment, travel and socializing. VR is advancing medicine by helping paraplegics regain


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body functions, treat PTSD and help children and teens with autism develop social skills, just to

name a few. It is being used by businesses to train employees and by architects to design 3-D

models and designs. VR’s uses are many and it benefits the majority so under utilitarianism

framework tech companies should keep moving forward in developing this technology without

being burdened by regulations. The benefit of this option is that the tech companies can keep

offering social services like Facebook, Google and possibly Facebook Spaces for free. To offer

these products and services for free the companies are bound by their business model and user

experience which requires consumers’ attention. The tech companies would not care about

making their products addictive if consumers were paying for them. But for now the companies

rely on ads to make money for these ‘free’ services and advertisers demand consumers’

attention. So for that reason tech companies cannot be arbiters of developing non addictive

technology as they are incapacitated by their own business needs (Zichermann, 2018). The

downside to this is that people cannot really be trusted with taking control of VR addiction.

Again going back to the claim of resemblance of smartphones, although people are now aware of

the vices of the overuse of smartphones they still cannot curb their cellphone use. Smartphone

and social media use has become essential to stay in touch with the world. We get news, weather

forecasts, driving directions, friends and family updates etc. on our phone. Same will be the case

with virtual reality. Once it becomes the norm, everything will be done in virtual reality. It

becomes very hard for the consumer to curb the use of new technology when even mundane

tasks require the use of that technology.

I believe tech companies are right in bringing the technology of virtual reality to masses

without making sure they are non-addictive. Their work is to perfect the design and usability of

the product. A tech addicted society is not the tech companies’ goal rather they are trying to do
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the greater good so there is no need to regulate them. Consumers need to assess their relationship

with technology and reframe it in a balanced way. Instead of attaching a stigma to the tech

companies of making products that are destroying our minds and relationships, the focus should

be on how these technologies have revolutionized our lives. Smartphones made the quality of

everyday life superior. Now imagine how much easier and convenient our lives would be when

virtual reality becomes mainstream. As far as consumers being forced into using VR because

eventually it will become a necessity, that happens with all technology and advancement.

Humans cannot stop advancing. We cannot bog down this progress by directing accusations

towards tech companies or demonizing them. As a mother I have always monitored my

children’s screen time and always felt it is my responsibility to make sure they are not overusing

their phones or playing videogames for a long time. For myself as well I put my phone away so I

will not be tempted to use it unnecessarily. Yes there will be people who do not act responsibly

and will fall victims to VR addiction. Already we see a rise in smartphone addiction so much so

that the reStart rehabilitation center had to open a second facility because of increased demand

(Green, 2017). Consequently, we might see mental and physical health problems rise and there

might be a rise in depression and isolation. But tech companies cannot be held responsible for

this. We need to remember that people who are inclined to spending meaningless time on social

media will still do so. People who are prone to addiction will be addicted to one thing or the

other. Regulating tech companies will not prevent people from addiction rather it will only

hinder progress. It is in the interest of the majority to not regulate tech companies in this matter.
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