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Combating Bullying With Virtual Reality

Tim Gallagher

· virtual reality,bullying,EdTech

In the 1960's, Jane Goodall observed Chimpanzees in the Tanzanian jungle and witnessed severe bullying amongst her primate subjects. Bullying reaps rewards within the social structure of the Macaca mulatta monkeys [1]. Antisocial and aggressive behaviour is widespread throughout human society, prevalent in virtually all cultures and countries [2]. One study has even shown that bullying is strongly influenced by genetics for both the bully and the victim [3]. As natural as bullying is, it can and does have lasting impacts on its victims. Victims of bullying are at a higher statistical risk of suicide than their un-bullied classmates when a number of other factors are taken into account. Schools run anti-bullying programs and educators recognise the serious and lasting impact bullies can have on their victims.

Schools approach bullying in many different ways. They work directly with bullies and victims on an individual basis while also running school-wide preventative campaigns which encourage students who witness bullying to intervene. Bullying is a complex issue, as there are often environmental factors which influence the protagonist. For example, children who experience troubles at home due to parental divorce are often more likely to be bullies. Laying the blame squarely on the bullies shoulders is not entirely helpful. The good news is that bullying has declined since research begun more than 40 years ago.

Virtual reality can help support both the bully and their victim with the creation of VR bullying prevention programs. Although we found no evidence of longitudinal research into the use of Virtual Reality to treat bullying, one three week study found that “intervention [through the use of virtual reality software] significantly increased the probability of victims escaping victimisation [4]”. Although these effects were short term, the study suggested that with a long term integrated approach, effects would be lasting.

For developers who are interested in creating VR educational apps that schools and students need, this could be an attractive option. The market is huge, with laws in many countries requiring schools to tackle the problem proactively. Not only is there money to be made, developers have the chance to work on something that could change the lives of countless individuals. We believe it is inevitable that this will be built. A virtual world, utilising phycological and cognitive research to help victims, bullies and the wider school community tackle the challenges bullying.

Victims of bullying are often taught different strategies to help them deal with and eventually stop their tormentors. For example, telling the bully to stop in a clear firm voice. This may work, however, when confronted by their bully, a victim is often not able to think clearly and pluck up the courage to respond in this way. Virtual reality could solve this problem by providing an environment where students could practice in these types of situations. A similar approach to training is being tested at Clemson University, teaching

nurses to stand up to surgeons when they feel they are making decisions that may be putting their patient’s life in danger [5].

Developing situations that place the bully in the shoes of their victims may also help combat the problem. This idea builds on a lot of work that has already been done in the VR space exploring how to build empathy. The opening scene of Batman Akhram VR on the PSVR depicts a moment when a young Bruce Wayne witnesses his parents' bloody murder. The player of the game views this from this boys perspective. The thug who killed his parents comes face to face with the character and intimidates him with a menacing look and threatening dialogue. For the player, this is an intense experience and provides an example for developers to look at for inspiration when developing empathy building experiences that help bullies feel what their victims feel.

Virtual reality has the power to enter many spaces within education, and as we’ve written here before, specific VR educational apps may not be the apps that have a lasting impact. However, bullying provides a context where a standalone VR experience really could make a different, and it can be developed with today’s technology.

[1] http://www.nature.com/news/monkey-genetics-track-social-status-1.10400

[2] http://www.jstor.org/stable/3696274?seq=1#page_scan_tab_contents

[3] http://www.kcl.ac.uk/ioppn/news/records/2007/12December/Genetics-environment-and-bullying-in-childhood.aspx

[4] http://www2.warwick.ac.uk/newsandevents/pressreleases/virtual_reality_games/

[5] http://voicesofvr.com/417-social-presence-training-social-dynamics-with-virtual-humans/

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