The pandemic, homeschooling and isolation from peers and friends affected the mental health of all children. But even before the pandemic, anxiety and depression among children was already on the rise. A new study suggests that robots could be used to assess children’s mental well-being, says the University of Cambridge in a press release.
A team of roboticists, computer scientists and psychiatrists from the University of Cambridge conducted a study involving 28 children between the ages of eight and 13 and had a child-sized humanoid robot complete a series of psychological questionnaires to assess the children’s mental well-being.
The children were willing to confide in the robot and in some cases shared information with the robot that they had not yet shared through the standard questionnaire assessment method. This is the first time robots have been used to assess mental well-being in children.
The researchers say that robots can be a useful addition to traditional methods of mental health assessment, 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 & Human Interactive Communication (RO-MAN) in Naples, Italy.
Kids love technology
Professor Hatice Gunes, who heads the Affective Intelligence and Robotics Laboratory in Cambridge’s Department of Computer Science and Technology, has investigated how socially helpful robots (SARs) can be used as mental well-being “coaches” for adults, but has also studied in the later year. how they can be useful for children.
“After I became a mother, I was much more interested in how children express themselves as they grow up, and how that might overlap with my work in robotics,” says Gunes. “Kids are very tactile and they’re drawn to technology. If they’re using a screen, for example, they’re withdrawn from the physical world. But robots are perfect because they’re in the physical world – they’re more interactive.
Traditional methods fall short
Together with colleagues from the Cambridge Department of Psychiatry, Gunes and her team designed an experiment to see if robots could be a useful tool for assessing mental well-being in children.
“Sometimes traditional methods are not able to measure children’s mental well-being because sometimes the changes are very subtle,” said Nida Itrat Abbasi, the study’s lead author. “We wanted to see if robots could help with this.”
In the study, 28 participants between the ages of 8 and 13 each took part in a 45-minute one-on-one session with a Nao robot – a humanoid robot about two feet tall. A parent or guardian, along with members of the research team, observed from an adjacent room. Before each session, the children and their parents or guardians completed a standard online questionnaire to assess each child’s mental well-being.
During each session, the robot performed four different tasks: 1) asking open-ended questions about happy and sad memories in the past week; 2) the Short Mood and Feelings Questionnaire (SMFQ) was administered; 3) a picture task inspired by the Children’s Apperception Test (CAT), in which children are asked to answer questions related to the pictures shown; and 4) Revised Children’s Anxiety and Depression Scale (RCADS) administered to examine generalized anxiety, panic disorder, and low mood.
Children were divided into three different groups based on the SMFQ, depending on how likely they were to struggle with their mental well-being. Throughout the session, participants interacted with the robot by talking to it or touching sensors on the robot’s hands and feet. Additional sensors tracked participants’ heart rate, head and eye movements during the session.
Lots of fun
The children who took part in the study said they enjoyed talking to the robot: some shared information with the robot that they had not shared in person or on the online questionnaire.
The researchers found that children with different welfare levels interacted differently with the robot. For children who did not have problems with their mental well-being, the researchers found that interacting with the robot led to more positive responses to the questionnaires. But for children who had concerns about their well-being, the robot allowed them to reveal their true feelings and experiences, leading to more negative responses to the questionnaire.
Children see the robot as a confidant
Nida Itrat Abbasic
“Because the robot we use is the size of children and does not appear threatening at all, children could see the robot as a confidant. They feel they won’t get in trouble if they share secrets with the robot,” Abbasi said. “Researchers have also found that children are more likely to disclose private information — such as being bullied — to a robot than they wanted an adult.”
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 do not intend to replace psychologists or other mental health professionals with robots, as their expertise far exceeds anything a robot can do,” said study co-author Dr. Micol Hospital. “However, our work suggests that robots can be a useful tool to help children open up and share things they may not initially feel comfortable with.”
The researchers say they hope to expand their research in the future by including more participants and following them up over time. They are also investigating whether similar results can be achieved when children interact with the robot via video chat.