A robot might be better than parents at detecting mental well-being issues in children.
That’s according to a team of roboticists, computer scientists, and psychiatrists from the University of Cambridge who found children were more willing to confide to a child-sized humanoid robot on the state of their mental well-being than to questionnaires given online or in person.
As part of the study, researchers gave 28 child participants, aged eight to 13, a child-sized humanoid robot that asked them a series of questions about their mental well-being. The robot asked open-ended questions about happy and sad memories and administered several questionnaires that measured mood and mental health.
In all cases, the children enjoyed talking with the robot and shared information that they had not shared online or in person.
The researchers conclude that robots could “be better at detecting mental wellbeing issues in children than parent-reported or self-reported testing,” and could be used in addition to traditional methods of mental health assessment.
Study author and Ph.D. student Nida Itrat Abbasi notes, “since the robot we use is child-sized and completely non-threatening, children might see the robot as a confidante — they feel like they won’t get into trouble if they share secrets with it.”
Rachel Gardner—Cambridge University
Between the physical world and the screen world
The study has wide implications over how robots can be used to augment mental health care for children who suffered during the pandemic. School closures, financial pressures, and isolation from peers and friends could have an impact on children’s mental health for years to come, according to Unicef, while resources to address the problem have been severely limited.
Professor Hatice Gunes argues that children are tactile and they’re drawn to technology. “If they’re using a screen-based tool, they’re withdrawn from the physical world. But robots are perfect because they’re in the physical world – they’re more interactive, so the children are more engaged.”
The children spoke to the humanoid robot, Nao, who stood at around 60 cm (2 ft.) tall, while attached to sensors tracking their heartbeat, head and eye movements. The parents or guardians of the child observed the interaction from an adjacent room.
Before each session, children and their parents or guardian also completed a questionnaire to assess the child’s mental well-being. The researchers found that with children who were struggling more with their mental health, “the robot may have enabled them to divulge their true feelings and experiences.”
Study co-author Micol Spitale said the results do not mean that robots should replace psychologists or other mental health professionals. since human expertise surpasses anything a robot can do.
“However, our work suggests that robots could be a useful tool in helping children to open up and share things they might not be comfortable sharing at first,” she adds.
The researchers are looking to expand their survey in the future, by including more participants and following them over time. They are also looking to see if interacting with the robot over video chat would have the same results.
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