Are children more likely to share their mental health issues with a robot?

Share on Pinterest
New research shows that a ‘child-like robot’ has been able to detect mental health problems in children with greater accuracy than humans. Aitor Diago/Getty Images
  • The growing crisis in young people’s mental health highlights the need for early detection and treatment of mental disorders.
  • A new study by researchers at the University of Cambridge has found that social assistance robots (SARs) could serve as a potential diagnostic tool for mental health.
  • According to the researchers, the study is the first time robots have been used to assess children’s mental well-being.
  • The study showed that robots were more likely to identify cases of abnormalities in well-being than self-reports completed by children or reports made by their parents.
  • However, the researchers did not use robots to deliver mental health interventions, but rather to detect and diagnose children’s mental health problems.

Even before the pandemic, about 4.4 percent of children (about 2.7 million) between the ages of three and 17 had been diagnosed with depression in the United States, according to National Survey of Children’s Health. The same study found that about 9.4% (about 5.8 million) of children had been diagnosed with anxiety.

Experts believe that the stress of COVID-19 has led to increased depression and anxiety among young people.

Mental health-related emergency department visits for children ages 5 to 11 increased 24 percent in 2020 compared to the previous year, according to a report by Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). For children between the ages of 12 and 17, visits increased by 31%.

At the same time, the U.S. still lacks adequate mental health care and access

Nearly 91 million Americans live in areas with a shortage of mental health providers, according to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, which estimates a minimum of 1,846 psychiatrists and 5,931 other practitioners are needed to fill the gap.

Recently, a group of researchers from the University of Cambridge studied the effects of social assistance robots (SARs), which could potentially serve as an assessment and diagnostic tool in areas where there is a shortage of mental health professionals.

Their work was presented this week at the 2022 IEEE International Conference on Robots and Human Interactive Communication in Naples, Italy.

For the study, researchers selected 28 children from Cambridgeshire, England, aged 8 to 13. Among the participants, 21 were women and 7 were men with an average age of 9.5 years.

Children who were already diagnosed with neurological or psychological disorders were excluded from the study.

First, participants answered about their well-being in an online questionnaire. In addition, parents or guardians answered a questionnaire about their children’s well-being.

Later, the young participants spent 45 minutes with the Nao robot, created by SoftBank Robotics. The robot then administers the Brief Mood and Feeling Questionnaire, which measures depressive symptoms, and the Revised Child Anxiety and Depression Scale.

The robot also asked the children about happy and sad memories they had experienced in the past week and administered a task in which the children were shown pictures and then asked questions about them.

The researchers found that questionnaires administered by robots were more likely to identify cases of abnormalities in well-being than children’s online self-reports or reports by parents or guardians.

Some participants shared information with the robot that they did not share through self-report.

Study co-author Prof. Hatice Gunes, Ph.D., Professor of Affective Intelligence and Robotics and Head of the Affective Intelligence and Robotics Laboratory at the University of Cambridge, explained to Medical News Today that among participants, “the group that may have some welfare concerns,” were more likely to give negative ratings to responses during the robot-administered questionnaires.

“The interesting finding here is that when they interacted with the robot, their responses became more negative,” Prof Gunnes noted.

Social assistive robots have previously demonstrated potential as a tool to improve the accessibility of care, the researchers explain in their paper. For example, a 2020 study showed that robots could be useful in assessing risk factors for autism spectrum disorder (ASD).

“Robots have been used for different tasks – and they’ve been shown to be effective at certain things because they have this physical embodiment, as opposed to a mobile phone or a virtual character or even videos,” Prof Gunes said.

And despite the potential dangers of giving a child too much time with an electronic device, one-on-one work with a robot is different from screen time, Prof Gunes noted.

“It’s a physical interaction, right? So it’s not virtual. It’s not a video — they’re physically interacting with a physical being,” she said.

Prof. Gunes also pointed out a key aspect of the study: the “child-like robot” used for the study was less than 2 feet tall.

“Here we have a robot that looks like a child and sounds like a child. “In such situations, children actually view the robot more as a peer. So not an adult trying to get some information out of them.

– Prof. Hatice Gunes, PhD, Professor of Affective Intelligence and Robotics at the University of Cambridge

Diane Hodge, Ph.D., LCSW, director of the School of Social Work at Radford University in Virginia, said she used puppets and dolls to make her pediatric clients feel more relaxed while working as a clinical social worker. worker earlier in her career.

Robots, she said MNTare the 21st century equivalent of these dolls.

“I’m all for technology that really improves and helps people,” Hodge said. “More kids today are just used to expecting it.”

Hodge also pointed out that in the study, researchers did not use a robot to deliver mental health interventions, but rather to assess children’s well-being. “It’s just to give people access,” she said.

Hodge also highlighted how the Nao robot was able to successfully identify more “well-being abnormalities” in children compared to those detected by humans. “[That] it shows that if we hadn’t done anything, right, they wouldn’t have caught this,” she said.

According to Prof Gunes, her research interests developed after having a baby in 2018. “I think I have become more sensitive to issues related to children and their well-being,” she said.

In the future, Prof Gunnes said the researchers hope to study how children respond to interacting with a diagnostic robot via video chat.

The researchers are now preparing to conduct a study similar to the one they presented at the conference, but with a more equal ratio of male and female participants, according to Prof Gunes.

“We want to actually see if the findings are consistent across genders,” she said.

Leave a Comment