PolyU researchers introduce pioneering metaverse-enabled expressive arts therapy programme to foster empathy in adolescents

Innovative technology continues to drive educational transformation, not only enhancing the teaching experience and its effectiveness, but also providing support for students with diverse learning needs. An interdisciplinary research team from The Hong Kong Polytechnic University (PolyU) has designed an expressive arts therapy programme utilising metaverse and virtual reality technologies to foster empathy and self-expression among adolescents, thereby improving their social skills and mental well-being.

Led by Prof. Eric CHUI, Chair Professor and Head of the Department of Applied Social Sciences; Dr Grace NGAI, Associate Professor of the Department of Computing; Dr Richard LI, Assistant Professor of the Department of Applied Social Sciences and the Department of Computing; and Dr Peter NG, Assistant Professor of the Department of Computing and the Department of Rehabilitation Sciences, the research team collaborated with Sheng Kung Hui (S.K.H.) St. Christopher’s Home to provide an eight-week therapy course for 30 adolescents aged between 12 and 18 from March to December 2023. The course was delivered by a licensed expressive arts therapist online via a virtual platform on a one-to-one basis.

Through virtual reality technology, the course enabled the expressive arts therapist and the adolescents, who were situated in different locations, to engage in real-time interaction and collaborate in three-dimensional art creation based on a variety of themes. During the course, adolescents created their own personalised virtual avatars and made use of a wide range of virtual tools for their artistic expression, while the therapist provided guidance and support to them on how to express themselves and understand the feelings and thoughts of others, through art.

The research team surveyed the participating adolescents before and after the course. They found that over 70% showed significant improvement in empathy, with a nearly 40% increase in their scores in relation to interpersonal response, while older participants exhibited greater progress. The findings indicate that the course is effective in fostering adolescent ability to imagine and understand the perspectives and situations of others. Meanwhile, assessments from the art therapist further revealed more than 70% of participants were willing to open up and share their emotions during the course, while almost half of them engaged in self-exploration and self-reflection.

The research team concluded that, built upon metaverse and virtual reality technologies, this novel platform for art creation allows adolescents to freely present their thoughts and feelings, while a virtual environment provides them with a sense of security which facilitates closer and more comfortable interaction and communication between them and the therapist.

Positive feedback was also received from the adolescent participants who said that they were delighted to be exposed to a new way of creating art and to gain a better understanding on how to build positive relationships with others and the community. They were also excited about participating in similar innovative programmes in the future.

Prof. Eric Chui believes that, with ever-evolving social needs and technological advancements, social workers have the responsibility to stay updated on relevant technology so as to be able to offer innovative and timely services. This programme is evidence of an innovative and successful use of metaverse technology in the development of adolescent mental well-being, while also illuminating the potential of educational innovation. He added that the younger generation in Hong Kong is facing numerous pressures, and therefore any method encouraging them to share and relax is worth the social welfare sector exploring.

Ms Kiann WONG, registered social worker at S.K.H. St. Christopher’s Home, said that this innovative programme has been profoundly beneficial to the growth of adolescents, allowing them to explore new technologies like the metaverse and virtual reality, and to learn about the importance of empathy. She hoped to continue collaboration with PolyU and provide more innovative learning opportunities for young people.

With an aim of supporting a broader range of communities in need, the research team intends to fine-tune the design of the course based on the experience and findings from the programme and expand it to a more diverse audience base, especially including adolescents with special educational needs or facing behavioural and other mental difficulties.

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