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Study finds robots can help detect mental health issues in children

By Arielle Yapchiongco Published Sep 05, 2022 3:32 pm

Cambridge University researchers suggested that using a humanoid robot could be a tool for conducting psychological assessments on children. 

According to the study conducted by a team of roboticists, computer scientists, and psychiatrists at the university, the size of the robot and its harmless appearance were one of the factors that helped children to perceive the inanimate object as a confidante or a reliable figure worthy of their trust. 

Robot Nao

It was found that the participants of the study enjoyed talking with the robot and managed to share private information that they were not able to say in person or on the online questionnaire. The safe and open space provided by the robot encouraged children with varying levels of mental health concerns to openly talk about their positive or negative feelings and experiences. 

“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 Nida Itrat Abbasi, one of the authors of the study.  

The study was carried out with 28 children aged eight to thirteen years old. While the robot gave open-ended questions to assess their mental well-being, the participants were also equipped with sensors that tracked their heart rate, head, and eye movements throughout the session.  

Each child had a session with a 60-centimeter tall Nao robot for 45 minutes while a parent or guardian, together with the research team, conducted their observation from an adjacent room. Before each session, the children and their parents or guardian were asked to answer an online questionnaire to evaluate each child’s mental health. 

Cambridge University's Rachel Gardner with Robot Nao

While the research provided a promising alternative to detect subtle concerns in the mental health of children, co-author Dr. Micol Spitale explained in a September 1 article from Cambridge that the robot would not be an intended replacement for psychologists and other mental health professionals. Instead, it could be a tool “in helping children to open up and share things they might not be comfortable sharing at first.” 

The researchers intend to widen the scope of their study by “including more participants and following them over time.” An investigation is also being conducted if similar results can be observed in children interacting with the robot through video chat.