The pandemic, homeschooling, and isolation from peers and friends have affected the mental health of many children. But even before the pandemic, anxiety and depression among children were already on the rise. A new study has indicated that robots can be used to assess children’s mental state, the University of Cambridge said in a press release.
A team of robotics, computer scientists and psychiatrists from the University of Cambridge conducted a study of 28 children aged 8 to 13 who completed a series of psychological questionnaires to assess the children’s mental state.
The children were willing to trust the bot and in some cases shared information with the bot that they had not yet shared through the standard questionnaire assessment method. This is the first time that robots have been used to assess mental health in children.
The researchers say the robots could be a useful addition to traditional methods of assessing mental health, although they are not intended to replace professional mental health support. The results will be presented today at the 31st IEEE International Conference on Robot and Human Interactive Communication (RO-MAN) in Naples, Italy.
Kids love technology
Professor Hatice Ganes, who heads the Emotional Intelligence and Robotics Lab at Cambridge’s Department of Computer Science and Technology, has studied how socially useful robots (SARs) can be used as ‘coaches’ for adult mental health, but has also studied in recent years. How it can be useful for children.
“After I became a mother, I was more interested in how children express themselves as they grow up, and how that might interfere with my robotics work,” Gunes says. “Children are very tactile and are drawn to technology. For example, if they are using a screen, they will be pulled out of the physical world. But robots are ideal because they are in the physical world – they are more interactive.”
Traditional methods fall short
With colleagues from the Department of Psychiatry in Cambridge, Gunes and her team designed an experiment to see if robots could be a useful tool for assessing mental health in children.
“Sometimes traditional methods cannot measure children’s mental well-being because sometimes the changes are so subtle,” said Nida Atraat Abbasi, the study’s lead author. “We wanted to see if robots could help with this.”
Humanoid robotic creature
In the study, 28 participants between the ages of 8 and 13 took part in a 45-minute one-on-one session with the Nao robot – a robot roughly two feet long. A parent or guardian, along with members of the research team, were observed from an adjacent room. Prior to each session, the children and their parents or guardians completed a standard online questionnaire to assess each child’s mental health.
During each session, the bot performed four different tasks: 1) asking open-ended questions about happy and sad memories of the past week; 2) the Short Mood and Feeling Questionnaire (SMFQ) was conducted; 3) An illustrated task inspired by the Children’s Perception Test (CAT), in which children are asked to answer questions related to the images presented; and 4) the modified Child Anxiety and Depression Scale (RCADS) to screen for generalized anxiety, panic disorder, and low mood.
The children were divided into three different groups based on the SMFQ, depending on how likely they were to struggle with their mental health. During the session, participants interacted with the robot by talking to it or touching the sensors on its hands and feet. Additional sensors tracked the participants’ heart rate and head and eye movements during the session.
so much fun
Children who participated in the study said they enjoyed talking to the bot: some shared information with the bot that they did not share in person or in the online survey.
The researchers found that children with different levels of well-being interact differently with the robot. For children without mental health issues, the researchers found that interaction with the robot resulted in more positive responses to questionnaires. But for children who had concerns about their well-being, the robot allowed them to reveal their true feelings and experiences, resulting in more negative responses to the questionnaire.
Children see the robot as a confidant
Atraat Abbasid call
“Because the robot we are using is child-sized and is not at all a threat, children can see the robot as being close to it. They feel they will not get into trouble if they show the robot their secrets,” Abbasi said. To disclose more private information – such as being bullied – to the robot than they would disclose to adults.”
The researchers say their findings show that while robots can be a useful tool for psychological assessment of children, they are not a substitute for human interaction.
“We are not planning to replace psychologists or other mental health professionals with robots, because their expertise far exceeds anything a robot can do,” said study co-author Dr Mikkol Spitale. “However, our work indicates that robots can be a useful tool to help children open up and share things they may not be comfortable with at first.”
The researchers say they hope to expand the scope of their research in the future, by involving and following up more participants over time. They are also investigating whether similar results can be achieved when children interact with the bot via video chat.