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 with greater accuracy than humans. Aitor Diago / Getty Images
  • The growing mental health crisis of young people highlights the need for early diagnosis and treatment of mental health disorders.
  • A new study by researchers from the University of Cambridge has found that socially assisted 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 shows that robots were more likely to identify cases of well-being anomalies than self-reports compiled 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, it is estimated that 4.4% of children (about 2.7 million) between the ages of three and 17 in the United States were diagnosed with depression, according to the National Child Health Survey. The same survey found that about 9.4% (about 5.8 million) of the children were diagnosed with anxiety.

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

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

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

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

Recently, a group of researchers from the University of Cambridge studied the effects of socially assisted robots (SARs), which could potentially serve as a diagnostic and assessment tool in areas where mental health professionals are in short supply.

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

For the study, the researchers selected 28 children from Cambridgeshire, England, aged between 8 and 13. Among the participants, 21 were female and 7 were male with a mean age of 9.5 years.

Children who had already 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, the parents or guardians answered a questionnaire on the well-being of their children.

Subsequently, 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 the children about happy and sad memories they experienced over the past week and administered a task where the children were shown pictures and then asked questions about them.

Researchers found that robot-led questionnaires were more likely to identify cases of well-being anomalies than children’s online self-reports or reports from parents or guardians.

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

Co-author of the study, Prof. Hatice Gunes, Ph.D., professor of affective and robotic intelligence and head of the Affective Intelligence and Robotics Lab at the University of Cambridge, explained to Medical news today that among the participants, “the group that may have some welfare concerns” was more likely to provide negative response ratings during robot-led questionnaires.

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

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

“Robots have been used for various tasks and have proven to be effective in some things because they have this physical embodiment, unlike a mobile phone or a virtual character or even videos,” said the prof. Gunes.

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 screentime, Prof noted. Gunes.

“This is a physical interaction, right? Hence, it is not virtual. It’s not a video: they physically interact with a physical entity, “she said.

Prof. Gunes also highlighted 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 and sounds like a child. “In such situations, children actually see the robot more as an equal. So, it’s not an adult trying to get some information out of them. “

– Prof. Hatice Gunes, Ph.D., 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 help her pediatric clients feel more comfortable while working as a clinical social worker in earlier in his career.

Robot, he said MNTthey are the 21st century equivalent of those puppets.

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

Hodge also pointed out that in the study, the researchers did not use a robot to deliver mental health care interventions, but rather to assess the well-being of children. “This is just to get people access,” she said.

Hodge also highlighted how the Nao robot was able to successfully identify more “wellness-related anomalies” in children than those detected by humans. “[That] it shows that if we hadn’t done anything, right, they wouldn’t have caught it, “he said.

According to Prof. Gunes, her research interests evolved after having a baby in 2018. ‘I think I have become more sensitive to issues relating to children and their well-being,’ she said.

In the future, prof. Gunes said the researchers hope to study how children respond to interaction with a diagnostic robot via video chat.

Researchers are already preparing to conduct a study similar to the one presented at the conference only with a more equal ratio of male and female participants, according to Prof. Gunes.

“We want to see if the results are consistent between the sexes,” he said.

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