Robots can be used to detect mental health problems in children: Cambridge study

A robot may be better than parents at detecting problems with children’s mental well-being.

That’s according to a team of roboticists, computer scientists and psychiatrists at the University of Cambridge, who found that children were more likely to trust a child-sized humanoid robot about the state of their mental well-being than questionnaires given online or in person .

As part of the study, researchers gave 28 child participants, ages 8 to 13, a child-sized humanoid robot that asked them a series of questions about their mental well-being. The robot asks open-ended questions about happy and sad memories and administers several questionnaires that measure mood and mental health.

In all cases, the children enjoyed talking to the robot and sharing information they had not shared online or in person.

The researchers concluded that the robots could “be better at detecting mental well-being problems in children than parent-reported or self-reported tests” and could be used in addition to traditional methods of mental health assessment.

Author of the study and Dr. Student Nida Itrat Abbasi notes, “because the robot we use is child-sized and completely non-threatening, children may perceive the robot as a confidant—they feel they won’t get into trouble if they share secrets with it.”

Robot Nao
The humanoid robot Nao

Rachel Gardner – University of Cambridge

Between the physical world and the screen world

The study has broad implications for how robots can be used to augment mental health care for children affected by the pandemic. According to Unicef, school closures, financial pressures and isolation from peers and friends can impact children’s mental health for years to come, while resources to tackle the problem are severely limited.

Professor Hatice Gunes claims that children are tactile and attracted to technology. “If they use a screen-based tool, they withdraw from the physical world. But robots are perfect because they’re in the physical world – they’re more interactive, so kids are more engaged.”

The children talked to the humanoid robot Nao, who stood about 60cm (2ft) tall, while attached to sensors tracking their heart rate, head movements and eyes. The child’s parents or guardians 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 for children who struggled more with their mental health, “the robot may have allowed them to reveal their true feelings and experiences.”

Study co-author Mikol Spitale said the results do not mean robots should replace psychologists or other mental health professionals. as human experience surpasses anything a robot can do.

“However, our work suggests that robots can be a useful tool to help children open up and share things they may not be comfortable sharing at first,” she adds.

The researchers aim to expand their study in the future by including more participants and following them over time. They are also looking to see if interacting with the robot via video chat will have the same results.

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