Robots may be better at spotting mental wellbeing issues in children than traditional methods

The Nao robot used in the study
The Nao robot used in the study Copyright Rachel Gardner
By Luke Hurst
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Would you confide in this robot? Some children shared information with it that they didn’t share before.


Robots can be effective at spotting mental wellbeing issues in children, a new study has found.

Using a child-sized humanoid robot in a study involving 28 children, researchers found the robot may be better than parent-reported or self-reporting testing at detecting problems.

The roboticists, computer scientists, and psychiatrists from the University of Cambridge studied how children responded to the robot when it asked a series of standard psychological questions.

In some cases, the children shared information with the robot that they didn’t share during the standard assessment method of online or in-person questionnaires.

The researchers say that while robots are not meant to be a substitute for professional mental health support, they could be a useful addition to traditional methods of mental health assessment.

Confiding in a robot

Previous studies have used robots to help vulnerable groups of people, such as the elderly, or children with autism. 

One study explored the use of robots having conversations with children with language impairment to support linguistic assessment and training.

But the University of Cambridge study, to be presented on Thursday at the IEEE International Conference on Robot and Human Interactive Communication in Naples, is thought to be the first to study how robots can assist in evaluating the mental wellbeing of children.

The study was led by Professor Hatice Gunes, from the Affective Intelligence and Robotics Laboratory in Cambridge’s Department of Computer Science and Technology, who has previously looked at how socially-assistive robots (SARs) can be used as mental wellbeing “coaches” for adults.

“After I became a mother, I was much more interested in how children express themselves as they grow, and how that might overlap with my work in robotics,” said Gunes.

“Children are quite 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 If they’re using a screen-based tool, they’re withdrawn from the physical world.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”.

For the study, 28 children between the ages of eight and 13 had one-on-one sessions with a Nao robot, which is an autonomous, programmable humanoid robot about 60 centimetres tall.

The robot conducted four tasks. First, it asked questions about happy and sad memories over the last week. Then it carried out a mood and feelings questionnaire.

It then asked the children to complete a picture task, where they answer questions related to pictures shown, and finally, it carried out a check of the Revised Children’s Anxiety and Depression Scale - which can highlight generalised anxiety, panic disorder and low mood.

‘Child-sized and non-threatening’

The children could speak to the robot, or touch sensors on its hands and feet, while additional sensors tracked the children’s heartbeats, and head and eye movements.

Parents and guardians observed the sessions from a separate room, and before each session the children completed a standard online questionnaire to assess their mental wellbeing.

“There are times when traditional methods aren’t able to catch mental wellbeing lapses in children, as sometimes the changes are incredibly subtle,” said Nida Itrat Abbasi, the study’s first author. “We wanted to see whether robots might be able to help with this process”.

The children all said they enjoyed interacting with the robot, and some shared information with it that they hadn’t shared in the prior assessment.

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.
Nida Itrat Abbasi
Study’s first author

“Other researchers have found that children are more likely to divulge private information – like that they’re being bullied, for example – to a robot than they would be to an adult”.

Because of this, the researchers say the robots could be a useful tool for the psychological assessment of children.

They did caution, however, that they were no substitute for humans.

“We don’t have any intention of replacing psychologists or other mental health professionals with robots, since their expertise far surpasses anything a robot can do,” said co-author Dr Micol Spitale.

“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.”

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