Pro-Palestinian marches on Roblox and our mental health

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Thousands of Israelis and Palestinians are dead. Families and friends across the world can’t talk about the conflict without devolving into heated disagreements, destroying their relationships.

When the real world gets tough, many flock to screens, and particularly video games and the metaverse for an escape. A change. A place to express themselves without consequence.

That may explain why pro-Palestinian marches are taking place in virtual universe Roblox, along with pro-Israel demonstrations. Like in the real world, these virtual reactions range from peaceful demonstrations to some disturbing imagery of flag stomping and jeering.

The platform, which boasts more than 65 million daily active users, lets people create online avatars and lead virtual lives: interact with others, play games, sell goods, and more. Its user base is predominantly children but 38% of its users were 17 and older as of 2022. Such arenas have become a haven for those seeking simultaneous anonymity and community.

Experts say joining online communities in times of crises can certainly bolster mental health, but not everyone will feel comforted in these spaces – especially when marches or other political actions go against their beliefs or turn offensive or derogatory. It’s best to avoid triggering situations.

“When human tragedies unfold on the other side of the world we may feel deep empathy and a sense of helplessness,” Przybylski says. “In the best case, mediums like Roblox and social media provide a conduit for our grief, ideas, and need for self-expression. In the worst case, these platforms can amplify our fears, frailties and darker sides of our nature.”

The double-edged sword of anonymity

Gaming has long proven a way for people to easily connect with strangers all over the world and a simple way to relieve stress and improve mental health. Users may have similar interests and viewpoints, if not same locations.

“We don’t have a lot of data on protests staged in gaming worlds, of course, but these may have the advantage of both appealing toward a broader and, perhaps, less radical group of protestors, while also keeping things a bit less emotionally volatile,” says Chris Ferguson, professor of psychology at Stetson University. Then again: “The counter to that is, however, with anonymity there can be less deterrence to bad behavior and harassment.”

The good and bad (and in-between) part of virtual platforms is their inherent accessibility. In some cases, for all ages: “A platform like Roblox is generally a space for kids, who don’t and can’t attend protests without their parents,” says Regine Galanti, a clinical psychologist. “Staging a pro-Palestinian or pro-Israel demonstration on Roblox allows people who can’t express their positions in person at rallies to do so within the space of their virtual community.”

Brad Fulton, associate professor of management and social policy at Indiana University – Bloomington, adds: “In times of crisis, people yearn to say something or do something. Platforms like Roblox provide a forum for people to express themselves and feel like they are making a difference. It can give them a semblance of control amid feelings of helplessness.”

It could also, however, stoke fires of resentment on either side in a politically charged climate. “Each online space serves as a space to act out fantasies against those whom you dehumanize and believe are either violent by nature or have a violent culture,” says Ella Ben Hagai, associate professor of psychology at California State University, Fullerton.

It could generally create a dangerous cycle of trauma. “If their virtual activity is motivated by a desire to create division, fear, horror or intimidation, these types of interactions can be very harmful not only to the other players but also to the player(s) who created the harm,” says psychologist Reneé Carr.

After all, “the digital and analogue worlds are not as separate as many might think. Our political, tribal, and personal identities are blurred across what might have once been a clear line between the online and offline worlds,” says Andrew Przybylski, professor of human behavior and technology at the University of Oxford.

‘We have a lot of choices’

Roblox, for its part, tries to address harassment head on. A Roblox spokesperson told USA TODAY in a statement: “We are deeply saddened by the horrific tragedy unfolding in Israel and Gaza, and our hearts go out to those who are impacted in the area or who have loved ones, family and friends in the region. While our community standards allow for expressions of solidarity, we do not allow for content that endorses or condones violence, promotes terrorism or hatred against individuals or groups or calls for supporting a specific political party. We have an expert team of thousands of moderators along with automated detection tools in place to monitor our platform and will take swift action against any content or individuals found to be in violation of our standards.”

This is important, because online aggression could fester: “For those inciting harm, being anonymous in the virtual world will increase their likelihood to be more aggressive and more violent,” Carr says. “And when other players respond – whether for or against the act – it gives the inciter a sense of power and confidence and fuels their desperate desire to get more and more attention – resulting in the already psychologically unhealthy inciter, creating more antagonistic or divisive content or gaming activity.”

More on the conflict: Israel, Gaza and how it’s tearing your family and friends apart

‘It can amplify the trauma’

Those struggling with their mental health should look for resources beyond online communities, like consulting their general practitioner or local mental health providers. And when in doubt, log out.

“When a person discovers an opposition protest occurring on a platform, it can amplify the trauma they are already experiencing,” Fulton says. “In times of crisis, randomly scrolling social media for comfort may not produce the best outcome.”

That said, the online world, like life, is full of all kinds of decisions. And that can mean you truly play to disengage. “For gaming, we have a lot of choices about how to game and, if gaming socially, who to game with,” Ferguson says. “That’s one of the brilliant aspects of online gaming. There’s nothing wrong with seeking out other players who wish to have a relief from, rather than engage with world events.”

Heads up: Israel, Gaza and when your social media posts hurt more than help

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