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.
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.