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Robot assesses children’s mental wellbeing

10 November 2022

FOR THE first time, robots have been used to assess mental wellbeing in children. A team of roboticists, computer scientists and psychiatrists from the University of Cambridge carried out a study with 28 children between the ages of eight and 13, and had a child-sized humanoid robot administer a series of standard psychological questionnaires to assess the mental wellbeing of each participant.

Image: Rachel Gardner

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

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.

Professor Hatice Gunes, who leads the Affective Intelligence and Robotics Laboratory in Cambridge’s Department of Computer Science and Technology, has been studying how socially-assistive robots (SARs) can be used as mental wellbeing ‘coaches’ for adults, but in recent years has also been studying how they may be beneficial to children.

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 If they’re using a screen-based tool, they’re withdrawn from the physical world.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

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; and 4) administered the Revised Children’s Anxiety and Depression Scale (RCADS) for generalised anxiety, panic disorder and low mood.

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

Study participants all said they enjoyed talking with the robot: some shared information with the robot that they hadn’t shared either in person or on the online questionnaire.