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


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

Even before the pandemic, about 4.4% of children (about 2.7 million) between the ages of 3 and 17 had been diagnosed with depression in the United States, according to the National Child Health Survey. The same survey found that about 9.4% (about 5.8 million) of children had been diagnosed with anxiety.

Experts believe the stress of COVID-19 has led to an increase in depression and anxiety among young people.

According to a report from Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Among children aged 12 to 17, visits increased by 31%.

At the same time, adequate mental health care and access is still lacking in the United States

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

Recently, a group of researchers from the University of Cambridge studied the effects of social service robots (SAR), which could potentially serve as an assessment and diagnostic tool in areas where mental health professionals are rare.

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

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

Children who had previously been diagnosed with neurological or psychological disorders were excluded from the research.

First, the participants answered about their well-being on an online questionnaire. In addition, parents or guardians answered a questionnaire on the well-being of their children.

Later, the young participants spent 45 minutes with a Nao robot, created by SoftBank Robotics. The robot then administered the Short Mood and Feelings Questionnaire, which measures symptoms of depression, and the Revised Child Anxiety and Depression Scale.

Additionally, the robot asked children about happy and sad memories they experienced over the past week and administered a task where children saw pictures and then asked questions about them.

The researchers found that the robot-administered questionnaires were more likely to identify instances of well-being abnormalities than children’s online self-reports or statements from parents or guardians.

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

Study co-author Professor 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 might have concerns related to well-being” was more likely to provide negative response ratings on bot-led questionnaires.

“The interesting finding here is that when they interact with the robot, their responses become more negative,” Professor Gunes noted.

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

“Robots have been used for a variety of tasks – and they’ve proven to be effective at certain things because they have this physical embodiment, unlike a mobile phone or a virtual persona or even videos,” Professor Gunes said. .

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

“It’s a physical interaction, isn’t it? So it’s not virtual. It’s not a video – they’re physically interacting with a physical entity,” she said.

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

“Here we have a robot that looks like a child and has a childish voice. “In such situations, children actually see the robot more as a peer. extract information from them.

– Teacher. Hatice Gunes, Ph.D., professor of affective intelligence and robotics at the University of Cambridge

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

Robots, she says DTMare the 21st century equivalent of these puppets.

“I’m all about technology that really improves and helps people,” Hodge said. “More kids today are so used to it that they expect it.”

Hodge also pointed out that in the study, researchers did not use robots to perform mental health care interventions, but rather to assess children’s well-being. “It’s just so people have access to it,” she said.

Hodge also pointed out how the Nao robot was able to successfully identify more “wellness-related abnormalities” in children compared to those revealed by humans. “[That] shows that if we hadn’t done something, okay, they wouldn’t have understood that,” she said.

According to Professor Gunes, her research interests evolved 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 Gunes said researchers hope to study how children react to interacting with a diagnostic robot via video chat.

Already, the researchers are 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 Professor Gunes.

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

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