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Hong Kong: PolyU VR Arts Therapy for Adolescent Mental Well-being

Image Credits: PolyU, Press Release
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Innovative technology continues to drive educational transformation, enhancing teaching effectiveness and supporting students with diverse learning needs. An interdisciplinary research team from The Hong Kong Polytechnic University (PolyU) has leveraged metaverse and virtual reality (VR) technologies to design an expressive arts therapy programme aimed at fostering empathy and self-expression among adolescents, thus improving their social skills and mental well-being.

Image Credits: PolyU, Press Release

This initiative is 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 both 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 team collaborated with Sheng Kung Hui (S.K.H.) St. Christopher’s Home to conduct an eight-week therapy course for 30 adolescents aged 12 to 18, spanning from March to December 2023. Delivered by a licensed expressive arts therapist, the course was conducted online via a virtual platform on a one-to-one basis.

Utilising VR technology, the programme enabled real-time interaction and collaborative three-dimensional art creation between the therapist and adolescents located in different places. Adolescents created personalised virtual avatars and utilised a wide range of virtual tools for artistic expression. Throughout the course, the therapist guided them in expressing themselves and understanding the feelings and thoughts of others through art.

Surveys conducted before and after the course revealed that over 70% of the participating adolescents showed significant improvement in empathy, with nearly a 40% increase in their interpersonal response scores. Older participants exhibited even greater progress.

These findings indicate that the course effectively enhances adolescents’ ability to imagine and understand others’ perspectives and situations. Furthermore, assessments from the art therapist indicated that more than 70% of participants were willing to open up and share their emotions during the course, with almost half engaging in self-exploration and self-reflection.

The research team concluded that the novel platform for art creation, built on metaverse and VR technologies, allows adolescents to express their thoughts and feelings freely. The virtual environment provides a sense of security, facilitating closer and more comfortable interaction and communication between the therapist and the adolescents.

Positive feedback from the adolescent participants highlighted their enthusiasm for this new mode of art creation and their improved understanding of building positive relationships with others and the community. They also expressed excitement about participating in similar innovative programmes in the future.

The Chair Professor and Head of the Department of Applied Social Sciences emphasised the responsibility of social workers to stay updated on relevant technologies to offer innovative and timely services, given the ever-evolving social needs and technological advancements.

This programme exemplifies the successful use of metaverse technology in promoting adolescent mental well-being and underscores the potential of educational innovation. He noted the numerous pressures faced by the younger generation in Hong Kong and advocated for methods that encourage them to share and relax, highlighting the social welfare sector’s need to explore such approaches.

A registered social worker at S.K.H. St. Christopher’s Home affirmed the programme’s profound benefits for adolescents. It allowed them to explore new technologies like the metaverse and VR while learning about the importance of empathy. She expressed a desire to continue collaborating with PolyU to provide more innovative learning opportunities for young people.

Looking ahead, the research team aims to refine the course design based on the experience and findings from the programme. They plan to expand the programme to a more diverse audience, particularly targeting adolescents with special educational needs or those facing behavioural and other mental challenges. This expansion aims to support a broader range of communities in need, leveraging the transformative potential of metaverse and VR technologies.

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