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Virtual worlds may influence social skills of disadvantaged teens

A Victoria University team is conducting groundbreaking research into the effects of virtual worlds on the lives of young people.

The team is looking at how computer environments such as Second Life can help transcend disadvantage and improve the social connectedness and self-image of young people who are disengaged, disabled or geographically isolated.

Senior educator Stefan Schutt from VU’s Work-based Education Research Centre (WERC) said the springboard for the project was previous research that found participants who lacked social skills and self-confidence were often highly skilled with computers.

“The project aims to help them develop social and personal skills in a simulated world that they have control over -- one that is not as exposed or judgemental as the real world,” he said.

The team – also comprised of VU’s School of Education lecturer Dr John Martino and WERC technical manager Dale Linegar -- is conducting a second VicHealth-funded study looking at how virtual worlds and other new technologies might make a difference to marginalised young people.

The Avatar Project, completed earlier this year, was a three-year study involving economically disadvantaged and refugee students from Flemington’s Debney Park Secondary College. They became more engaged with school and socially confident as a result of their electronic activities.

That project was awarded the Community Technology Innovator of the Year 2009 prize at the national Community ICT Awards.

Connected Lives is the team’s current project, and includes 30 young people in Gippsland and Melbourne.  

“Both projects look at the effects of technology on the mental health and wellbeing of these young people, including their connectedness to other people,” Mr Schutt said.

Similar to the Avatar Project, students involved in Connected Lives will develop their own avatar identities to interact in a virtual 3-D world, and also create electronic comic books, movies and blogs.

In addition to developing social skills, the activities aim to help students build skills in teamwork and decision-making, and expose them to new technology.

The team’s research was inspired several years ago after members saw how a virtual world was being used by VU multimedia students with Asperger’s syndrome, hearing impairments and cerebral palsy.

“We found they used virtual worlds to practise being social, and at the same time they were really good with computer skills. We realised it might be possible to expand this to a broader range of marginalised students,” Mr Schutt said.

Stefan Schutt is available for comment.  Stefan Schutt, Senior Educator Research & Learning,  Work-Based Education Research Centre, Victoria University. Ph: (03) 9919 1618 or Mob: 0410 387 622.

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