Public Libraries in Seattle, DC, and La Grange, Texas “Launch Surprising Tool to Support Teen Mental Health: Virtual Reality Design”
Virtual reality experiences can be exciting, entertaining and educational. Now, three public libraries in Seattle, Washington D.C., and rural Texas have launched a website that provides a roadmap for using virtual reality (VR) design to support the mental health of adolescents.
VRtality.org was launched by The Seattle Public Library, DC Public Library in Washington D.C. and the Fayette Public Library, Museum & Archives in La Grange, Texas. Informed by VR pilot programs developed by the three libraries, VRtality offers a variety of tools to guide libraries and other youth-serving organizations in leveraging virtual reality’s immersive appeal with teens to support their long-term well-being.
“In an era when anxiety and stress in teens are at high levels, we are excited to share this comprehensive roadmap with other library systems in support of teens,” said Juan Rubio, Program Manager at The Seattle Public Library, and project lead for VRtality. “There is a joy and wonder in VR that make it especially suited for engaging teens in examining mental health and creating their own solutions.”
A key principle of VRtality is co-design – allowing teens to work with adults as equal partners in designing and discussing experiences that help them reduce stress and boost emotional regulation and mindfulness.
“The use of co-design principles created an environment where teens could build relationships, discuss common stressors, and design with purpose,” said Allison MacKenzie, Library Director of the Fayette Public Library, Museum & Archives.
VRtality includes step-by-step guidelines for planning a program, recruiting teens, selecting technology, and facilitating design sessions, including design sprints (an intensive process that allows teams to generate a mass of solutions for a specific problem, prototype, test and learn in a short period of time). A Roadmap Builder helps library staff put the pieces together and develop a customized plan for their community.
“Teaching digital citizenship is a priority for us at DC Public Library and this project was a great way to acclimate young people to virtual reality,” said Joanna Harris, Teen Services Coordinator at DC Public Library. “By putting teens in the position of being a digital creator as well as consumer, it empowers them to think of the future of technology in their own terms.”
The VRtality website was developed as part of a two-year project called “Caring About Teen Mental Health,” funded by a grant awarded in 2020 by the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS) to support the role of museums and libraries in responding to the coronavirus pandemic. Just 68 projects were funded in total from 1,700 applications received. Additional funding was provided by The Seattle Public Library Foundation.
The three libraries collaborated on creating VR design pilot projects with youth in their communities, then used the learnings to inform VRtality.org. Each partner library facilitated a series of approximately 13 co-design sessions and two design sprints. The three VR designs, available on VRtality, include “Purrrniverse,” DC Public Library’s design about a cat who would knock things off a table; “De-Stress Gardening,” The Seattle Public Library’s design about planting seeds and exploring gardening; and “Animal Excursion,” Fayette Public Library’s design about interacting with wildlife in a forest setting.
The content of the projects and the co-design process both aimed to support mental health for the teens involved. All activities, from relationship-building exercises to testing and iterating VR experiences, integrated ways for teens to think about, express, and engage in positive mental health.
A research team led by Dr. Elin Bjorling and Dr. Jin Ha Lee of the University of Washington, co-principal investigators on the project, collected data from the pilot projects. Early analysis showed that teens were heavily engaged in the design processes and provided rich detail about their feelings around mental health discussions, as well as how they felt mental health could be improved using a virtual reality environment. Teens involved expressed a desire for more mental health education and discussion.
Anecdotal feedback from teen participants highlighted their experiences:
- “I found that I do stress out about a lot of things. This program made me realize that my mind craves a peaceful environment.”
- “I was surprised how calming and helpful VR can be.”
- “My favorite part of the program was getting to know myself a little better.”
“The analysis found commonalties in how teens envisioned the VR content that would be helpful for supporting their mental health,” said University of Washington Information School Associate Professor Jin Ha Lee. “A VR design that includes constructive destruction, for example, can be a way to express negative feelings and convert that energy for growth.”
As VRtality states: “The tech learnings were significant, but the journey of collaboration, introspection, bonding and the felt sense of achievement were the real outcomes of this program.”
VRtality visitors can view the three projects, and use any of the tools on the website. The team also plans to have a VRtality Day later in the year with sessions covering many aspects of the project, including teen engagement, co-design for mental health, VR, project outcomes, co-design strategies and more.
Undergraduate interns from the Louis Stokes Alliance for Minority Participation (LSAMP) at the University of Washington and Howard University assisted with both The Seattle Public Library’s early VR projects as well as the VRtality projects, gaining skills in virtual reality development and co-design.
VRtality emphasizes that library staff and community partners who work on such programs are not being asked to help teens navigate traumatic mental health experiences. “The role of library staff and partners is to help teens understand where stress and healthy well-being comes from and how to embrace activities that support positive mental health,” said The Seattle Public Library’s Juan Rubio.
About Gary Price
Gary Price (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a librarian, writer, consultant, and frequent conference speaker based in the Washington D.C. metro area. He earned his MLIS degree from Wayne State University in Detroit. Price has won several awards including the SLA Innovations in Technology Award and Alumnus of the Year from the Wayne St. University Library and Information Science Program. From 2006-2009 he was Director of Online Information Services at Ask.com. Gary is also the co-founder of infoDJ an innovation research consultancy supporting corporate product and business model teams with just-in-time fact and insight finding.