Virtual reality to fight bullying and gender-based violence
Spanish researchers are developing the potential of this technological tool to strengthen empathy in cases of school and domestic abuse and reduce rates of recurrence
Technology increasingly stimulates us to live other realities, to virtually move into artificial spaces and to draw the outlines of new worlds to our taste. New worlds in which, just through a pair of glasses, we feel like we are in a parallel reality. Virtual reality has become a tool that can help us to better understand human psychology and, above all, to learn from behaviours in order to improve them. This is the premise from which the anti-bullying project by the Corporación Sanitaria Parc Taulí de Sabadell and a team from the Data Science and Big Data unit of Eurecat departs. Their challenge is to use virtual reality "to try to prevent bullying by stimulating students’ empathy toward the victims," explains Miguel Barreda, a researcher at Eurecat.
For a two year period (until 2020), the team will use virtual reality environments co-created by the pupils themselves - aged between 12 and 14 - to combat bullying, a problem that affects at least one in every three children in Spain, according to a study by the ANAR Foundation. The sessions will explain to students what bullying is, the reasons why it happens, its consequences, etc.
In addition, they themselves will be writing the script for the scenes that a victim of bullying has to face, and will record them with 360º cameras. They will create the content, which is then played through virtual reality glasses in the different Catalonian schools that are participating in this pilot project. “We will supervise the scripts so that they are experiences that bring new points of view, but that are not so extreme as to leave an emotional footprint", specifies the researcher.
He also recognises that "the aim is not to raise awareness among the victims, but among the perpetrators and, above all, to those who witness these scenes. The attitude of these witnesses depends very much on the action going further or being stopped in time".
It is not the first time that technology has been used in Spain to try to reduce bullying. Samsung, together with the Ministry of Education, Culture and Sport, already developed a similar initiative, but Barreda points out some differences:
“In this project we will look for evidence of empathy at different levels, not only through questionnaires with the children, but by doing experimental empathy tests in which we will measure psycho-physiological variables. We will also do brain scans on some of them, as a complement to these tests, to analyse if there is neuronal activation and whether there is a relationship with a more intense emotional response. We are hoping to find evidence to show that it really works".
Technology to empathise in the face of gender violence
This technological ally is not limited to any particular sphere of action, but it can be extended out to other social problems involving psychological factors. In fact, since 2010 Spanish researchers have been studying the impact of virtual reality in cases of gender-based violence and have proved the efficacy of this tool in improving empathy toward the victim and reducing the rate of recurrence.
The August Pi i Sunyer Institute of Biomedical Research (Idibaps-Hospital Clinic), in collaboration with the University of Barcelona and Event Lab,are carrying out an experimentthat studies "the behaviour of abusers when they are put in the victims’ shoes," says Mavi Sánchez, a researcher from IDIBAPS and head of the Neuroscience Systems team. They are exposed to tense situations, threats and constant psychological violence, without actually experiencing physical violence virtually.
When they proposed this research, Sánchez’s team decided to use the method of embodiment, which consists of feeling a virtual body as if it were your own: “The appearance and characteristics of your virtual body (gender, race, etc.) affect the way in which you perceive yourself and the way you respond to certain situations".
Sánchez, who holds a PHD in neuroscience, tells us that at the moment they have several processes on the go in collaboration with the Department of Justice of Catalonia, with modules that are more focused toward the comprehensive measurement of empathy and sensitivity in order to train new behaviours. “We all know that when you enter a virtual environment you have access to a lie, it’s like watching a film, but in a more immersive way," says Sanchez.
She noted, however, that there is an impact on user behaviour despite this awareness of fiction: “We confirm that the effect was positive, they felt uncomfortable and they themselves felt that it gave them a different perspective". Indeed, Sánchez prefers not to define these processes as treatments, but talk instead of virtual reality as a "tool that is used as a supplement in the course of rehabilitation".
Training in virtual reality, key to the future
The merging of realities that virtual reality represents can also sometimes have an undesired effect and disconcert some people, making them confuse one reality with another and finding in these constructed environments a way of taking refuge from the real world.
Laura Raya, who is responsible for the discipline of virtual reality at U-tad, a university centre in which Banco de Santander offers scholarships specialised in this discipline, sees it like this: “There can come a time when your virtual world is much more accommodating, comfortable and safe than your physical world and, therefore, you enjoy it more inside than outside. But that is not something new; virtual reality can perhaps make it happen faster, although we have already experienced the phenomenon with video games and role-playing games".
Raya is convinced of the benefits of virtual reality, of how, for example, it can help in overcoming trauma, and she defends the future impact, saying that it will vary depending on the purpose or the way in which the technology is applied. “As virtual reality begins to enter homes and schools it should be accompanied by education and good practice so that these risks do not materialise, and if they do occur, that it be in as few cases as possible," defends Raya.
To do this, the specialist backs the training of talent in this technological discipline. “Companies today cannot find the profiles they are looking for", she warns, and calls for greater educational awareness around this discipline to enhance its potential and thus build parallel worlds with minimal risk.
By Marta Sotres