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Robots Better than Humans at Detecting Mental Wellbeing Issues in Children

Robots can be better at detecting mental wellbeing issues in children than parent-reported or self-reported testing, say UK researchers.

The researchers behind a new study, presented at the 31st IEEE International Conference on Robot & Human Interactive Communication (RO-MAN) in Naples, Italy, have suggested that robots could be a useful addition to traditional methods of mental health assessment.

"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, a PhD student at Cambridge Affective Computing and Robotics Group, University of Cambridge, and the study's first author. "We wanted to see whether robots might be able to help with this process," she explained.

The authors highlighted how during the COVID-19 pandemic, home schooling, financial pressures, and isolation from peers and friends impacted the mental health of many children. Even before the pandemic however, anxiety and depression among children in the UK has been on the rise, but the resources and support to address mental wellbeing are severely limited.

Children Engage With Robots

For their study the research team - which comprised roboticists, computer scientists, and psychiatrists, from the University of Cambridge – enrolled 28 participants between ages 8-13 years. Whilst being observed from an adjacent room by a parent or guardian, along with members of the research team, the participants  took part in a one-to-one 45-minute session with a Nao robot – a humanoid robot about 60 centimetres tall – that administered a series of standard psychological questionnaires to assess the mental wellbeing of each participant.

Participants interacted with the robot throughout the session by speaking with it, or by touching sensors on the robot’s hands and feet. Additional sensors tracked participants' heartbeat, head, and eye movements during the session.

Professor Hatice Gunes, Affective Intelligence and Robotics Laboratory, Department of Computer Science, University of Cambridge, said: "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 If they’re using a screen-based tool, they're withdrawn from the physical world," she said. "But robots are perfect because they're in the physical world – they're more interactive, so the children are more engaged."

Prior to each session the children and their parent or guardian completed standard online questionnaires to assess each child’s mental wellbeing.

During each session, the robot performed four different tasks:

  1. Asked open-ended questions about happy and sad memories over the last week
  2. Administered the Short Mood and Feelings Questionnaire (SMFQ)
  3. Administered a picture task inspired by the Children’s Apperception Test (CAT), where children are asked to answer questions related to pictures shown
  4. Administered the Revised Children’s Anxiety and Depression Scale (RCADS) for generalised anxiety, panic disorder and low mood

Following the SMFQ children were divided into three different groups according to how likely they were to be struggling with their mental wellbeing.

The researchers found that children with varying levels of wellbeing concerns interacted differently with the robot. For children that might not be experiencing mental wellbeing-related problems, the researchers found that interacting with the robot led to more positive response ratings to the questionnaires. However, for children that might be experiencing wellbeing related concerns, the robot may have enabled them to divulge their true feelings and experiences, leading to more negative response ratings to the questionnaire.

Robots an Addition Not a Replacement

"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," said Ms Abbasi. "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," she said.

Study participants all said they "enjoyed talking with the robot", commented the authors, who added that, "the children were willing to confide in the robot, in some cases sharing information with the robot that they had not yet shared via the standard assessment method of online or in-person questionnaires".

This is the first time that robots have been used to assess mental wellbeing in children, the researchers pointed out. "Robots could be a useful addition to traditional methods of mental health assessment," they said, though emphasised that robots are "not intended to be a substitute for professional mental health support".

"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 Dr Micol Spitale, Affective Computing and Robotics Laboratory, University of Cambridge, and study co-author. "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."

The researchers say that they hope to expand their survey in future, by including more participants and following them over time. They are also investigating whether similar results could be achieved if children interact with the robot via video chat.

Lead Image Credit: Rachel Gardner