Creating a Feeling of Social Support in Virtual Reality

Project Lead Category Project status
Babet Halberstadt Resilience Preparation

People with large social networks on average live longer, happier, less stressed lives. We can potentially leverage virtual reality to increase the experience of social support and impact daily stress and anxiety. Therefore, this project aims to pinpoint which aspects of virtual social interaction are needed to convey a sense of social support.

Project team


Stress and Anxiety

Between 5-25% of children under 12 show clinically significant anxiety symptoms (Cartwright-Hatton, McNicol, & Doubleday, 2006) and 20% of US children report high daily stress and/or worrying (APA Stress in America Findings, 2010). For older children these numbers only go up, with 30% of US teens reporting they feel tired, sad and/or overwhelmed due to high daily stress (APA Stress in America, 2014).

Social support: Giving and Receiving

It has previously been shown that people with a large social support network have better physical and mental health prospects, therefore leading longer, happier and healthier lives (Kawachi & Berkman, 2001; Schwarzer & Leppin, 1991). According to the Stress Buffering hypothesis, the beneficial effects of social support on health are a result of the reduction in psychobiological activation in response to stressors (Cohen & Wills, 1985). It has also been shown that the supportive presence of others during stressful tasks will lower stress reactivity (Uchino & Garvey, 1997). In theory, increasing the feeling of social support in individuals should therefore help them deal with stress more effectively and improve mental health.

Furthermore, it has also been shown that giving social support can lower blood pressure and heartrate, and that individuals that have a more frequent tendency to give social support also receive support more often, and reported less stress and less depression (Piferi & Lawler, 2006). Therefore, creating situations in which individuals can frequently give social support to others can potentially also result in lower stress reactivity.

Virtual Reality

With the advent of virtual reality, we hope to be able to recreate social supportiveness in a virtual space in order to lower stress reactivity and potentially impact daily stress and anxiety. For this reason, we want to measure to what degree different aspects of social interaction (such as verbal and non-verbal communication, presence and physical touch) contribute towards generating a feeling of social support while undergoing stress in a virtual world. We specifically aim to answer the question if the beneficial effects of social support can be incited through virtual social support and if it can be elicited by both giving and receiving support. An additional aim is to show that virtual and physical social support are experienced in a similar manner in the brain.


Children under 12 with Anxiety


Children with high daily Stress


Teens feeling tired and sad due to daily Stress


All publications

Project team

Babet Halberstadt title=
Babet Halberstadt

PhD candidate with a background in neuroscience, now combining her love of gaming with her interest in the brain and human behaviour. Collector of useless skills, photographer, illustrator, and ukulele player.




E-mail Babet

Isabela Granic title=
Isabela Granic

Professor and Chair of the Developmental Psychopathology department in the Behavioural Science Institute; writer; voracious podcast consumer; mother of two upstanding little gamers


Director of GEMH Lab


E-mail Isabela

Marieke van Rooij title=
Marieke van Rooij

Assistant prof. and data geek at the GEMH lab, dynamical modelling, personalisation, wants to put the I back into AI, news junkie, cat lover.


Assistant Professor


E-mail Marieke

Maaike Verhagen title=
Maaike Verhagen

Assistant Professor within the Developmental Psychopathology group of the Behavioural Science Institute


Assistant Professor


E-mail Maaike

Ken Koontz title=
Ken Koontz

In house game designer, artist, producer and lover of games. I bring diversity, design experience and the NOISE!!!!


Creative Director


E-mail Ken

Erik van den Berge title=
Erik van den Berge

Game designer, VR-guru, mocap artist, animator, video editor and all-round problem solver. Avid gamer, movie lover and dabbling photographer.


Game Designer


E-mail Erik


All sources
  1. American Psychological Association. (2010). Stress in America Findings. Stress in America Surveys (
  2. American Psychological Association. (2014). Stress in America: Are teens adopting adults’ stress habits. Stress in America Surveys (
  3. Cartwright-Hatton, S., McNicol, K., & Doubleday, E. (2006). Anxiety in a neglected population: Prevalence of anxiety disorders in pre-adolescent children. Clinical Psychology Review, 26(7), 817-833. doi:
  4. Kawachi, I., & Berkman, L. F. (2001). Social Ties and Mental Health. Journal of Urban Health, 78(3), 458-467.
  5. Piferi, R. L., & Lawler, K. A. (2006). Social support and ambulatory blood pressure: an examination of both receiving and giving. Int J Psychophysiol, 62(2), 328-336. doi:10.1016/j.ijpsycho.2006.06.002
  6. Schwarzer, R., & Leppin, A. (1991). Social Support and Health: A Theoretical and Empirical Overview. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 8(1), 99-127.
  7. Uchino, B. N., & Garvey, T. S. (1997). The Availability of Social Support Reduces Cardiovascular Reactivity to Acute Psychological Stress. Journal of Behavioral Medicine, 20(1), 15-27.

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