Robots can better access children’s mental wellbeing, study

Robots can be better at detecting mental well-being issues in children.


Numerous college students suffer from mental health issues. This impacts their physical, social, and occupational capabilities. Several technologies have been proposed to diminish the negative impact of mental health disorders. However, the evaluation of these technologies, if done at all, often reports mixed results on improving users’ mental health.

In prior works, social robots have shown the potential to build rapport and a working alliance with users in various settings. In a new study, a team of roboticists, computer scientists, and psychiatrists from the University of Cambridge explored using a social robot coach to deliver positive psychology interventions to college students living in on-campus dormitories. 

The study involved 28 children between the ages of eight and 13. A child-sized humanoid- robot was used to administer a series of standard psychological questionnaires to assess the mental well-being of each participant.

The children were willing to confide in the robot, sometimes 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 the mental well-being of children.

According to scientists, robots could be a useful addition to traditional mental health assessment methods, although they are not intended to be a substitute for professional mental health support.

Professor Hatice Gunes, who leads the Affective Intelligence and Robotics Laboratory in Cambridge’s said, “Children are quite tactile, and they’re drawn to technology. They withdraw from the physical world if they use a screen-based tool. But robots are perfect because they’re in the physical world – they’re more interactive, so the children are more engaged.”

Scientists later designed an experiment to determine if robots could be a useful tool to assess mental well-being in children. Sometimes, traditional materials can’t catch mental well-being lapses in children because of subtle changes. Scientists wanted to see whether robots could help with this process.

For the study, a Nao robot—a humanoid robot that stands about 60 centimeters tall—met with 28 participants between the ages of eight and thirteen for a 45-minute session. The research team and a parent or guardian watched from a nearby room. Children and their parents or guardian completed a standard online questionnaire before each session to gauge each child’s mental health.

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 generalized anxiety, panic disorder, and low mood.

Children were divided into three groups following the SMFQ according to how likely they were to struggle with their mental well-being. Participants interacted with the robot throughout the session by speaking or touching sensors on the robot’s hands and feet. Additional sensors tracked participants’ heartbeat, head, and eye movements during the session.

All participants reported that 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.

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

Nida Itrat Abbasi, the study’s first author, said, “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. 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 to an adult.”

Scientists noted, “While their results show that robots could be a useful tool for psychological assessment of children, they are not a substitute for human interaction.”

Co-author Dr. Micol Spitale said“We don’t intend to replace psychologists or other mental health professionals with robots since their expertise far surpasses anything a robot can do. 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 results will be presented today at the 31st IEEE International Conference on Robot & Human Interactive Communication (RO-MAN) in Naples, Italy.


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