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Virtual Reality as a Solution to Bullying Through Empathy and Learning

Virtual reality and ethics are so often spoken in the same breath that it can be easy to forget that the technology isn’t just a generator of moral challenges but can also be used as a tool to help resolve them.

A quarter to half of all students in the U.S. have reported experiencing bullying, with one major study reporting that more than 70% of students have seen bullying in their schools. Bullying can lead to a lot of emotional distress, and targets are often those kids who appear to be social outliers. In some cases, bullying behaviors can even lead to suicide. There are over 5000 suicide attempts by students grades 7-12 in the US every single day.

Virtual reality can help with these alarming statistics by helping teachers and students alike recognize and prevent bullying and other nasty, unempathetic behaviors. Just as VR is helping healthcare providers empathize with their patients as well as provide solutions, virtual reality in education is training teaching professionals and students to interact in ways that leave everyone unscathed and allowing teachers to act when their duty to our youth calls the strongest.

For example, a paper by Stavroulia et al. called “A 3D virtual environment for training teachers to identify bullying” which first appeared in Electrotechnical Conference (MELECON) outlines a method of using VR simulation of a middle school to both track eye movements and train new teachers on how to spot bullying behaviors.

After witnessing these distressing behaviors, teachers have to make decisions on how to deal with the problem. Not only does this prepare teachers for the sorts of situations they are likely to encounter as they enter their teaching careers, but also trains them to instinctively respond in a well-meaning and effective way in order to put a stop to these situations before they get out of hand.

People Would Shell Out Money For It. Most people recognize that the best virtual reality headsets cost quite a lot. After all, the best virtual reality experience is worth spending money on. One study found that a majority of consumers would be willing to spend up to $500 for the right virtual reality gear. This is really good news, considering that some of the top headsets for virtual reality cost about $500. There are also plenty of lower-priced ones that can be used for virtual reality as well.

Beyond simply teacher training, virtual reality can also benefit students themselves, especially those who have been victims of bullying. In a study by Maria Sapouna and Professor Dieter Wolke from Warwick Medical School and the Department of Psychology at the University of Warwick, students entered a 3D virtual world called FearNot! that contained bullying scenarios, various roles from bullied to bully to bystander as well as situational advice for students to access and interact with. The VR program showed short-term benefits with the participants in “escaping victimization” and learning how to resolve bullying situations. It has been proposed that longer term training within schools using this VR setup alongside refreshers may lead to longer term benefits for students. Another virtual reality app called Amanda, named after a bullying victim Amanda Todd who unfortunately committed suicide, helps students gain empathy in bullying situations by presenting them with bullying scenarios and helping to gauge and guide their reactions. In many ways, it teaches users what they can do to increase their empathy quota, lowering bullying by offering genuine caring to one another.

When looking to the virtual world to teach our children and our teachers about the effects of bullying, one thing to remember is that bullying is not restricted to the physical world. Cyber bullying is a prominent concern, one that can actually be even more personally damaging when done in virtual reality. We must look at all paths bullying can take when creating anti-bullying curriculum in order to stop abusive behaviors at their root.

What do you think we can do to stop bullying? Do you think VR will help? Let us know in the comments below!

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