A University of Missouri researcher's study says that a virtual avatar can influence a person's health and appearance.
Harnessing the power of the virtual world could lead to new forms of obesity treatment and help break down racial and sexual prejudices, they suggested.
"The creation of an avatar allows an individual to try on a new appearance and persona, with little risk or effort," said Elizabeth Behm-Morawitz, assistant professor of communication in MU's College of Arts and Science.
"That alter-ego can then have a positive influence on a person's life. For example, people seeking to lose weight could create fitter avatars to help visualize themselves as slimmer and healthier," she explained.
In Behm-Morawitz's study, 279 users of a virtual reality community, Second Life, answered a questionnaire about their engagement with their avatar and relationships they developed online, as well as their offline health, appearance and emotional well-being.
Self-presence, or the degree to which users experienced their avatars as an extension of themselves, was found to predict the influence of the avatar on people's physical reality. A strong sense of self-presence in the social virtual world positively promoted health and well-being of study participants.
People with high degrees of self-presence in the cyber world reported that their experience with their avatar improved how they felt about themselves offline. Self-presence also correlated to greater satisfaction with online relationships.
"This study found no evidence of negative effects of a high degree of self-presence in the virtual world on study participants; however, that doesn't rule out the possibility," said Behm-Morowitz.
"Users should practice moderation. Virtual entertainment, like other forms of diversion such as books or television, can be used in unhealthy ways," she noted.
Further research by Behm-Morawitz on virtual worlds will look at how avatars may be used to encourage tolerance of diversity.
The study was published in the journal Computers in Human Behavior.