Robots could help detect mental well-being problems in children, a study suggests.
Researchers at the University of Cambridge asked a child-sized humanoid robot to complete a series of questionnaires with 28 children between the ages of eight and 13 to assess mental well-being.
They found that young people were willing to confide in the robot, sometimes sharing information they had not yet shared via online or in-person questionnaires.
The researchers say robots could be a useful addition to traditional mental health assessment methods, although they are not intended to replace professional mental health support.
PhD student Nida Itrat Abbasi, the study’s first author, said, “Since the robot we use is child-friendly and completely non-threatening, children may see the robot as a confidant – they feel like they don’t. get in trouble if they share secrets with it.
“Other researchers have found that children are more likely to disclose private information – such as those being bullied, for example – to a robot than to an adult.”
Each child took part in a 45-minute individual session with a Nao robot, a humanoid robot about 60 centimeters tall.
A parent or guardian and members of the research team, observed from an adjacent room.
Prior to each session, the children and their parent or guardian completed standard online questionnaires to assess the child’s mental well-being.
Participants interacted with the robot during the session by talking to it or by touching the sensors on the robot’s hands and feet.
Additional sensors monitored the heartbeat, head and eye movements of the participants during the session.
All study participants said they enjoyed talking to the robot.
Some information shared with the robot that they had not shared either in person or on the online questionnaire.
Professor Hatice Gunes, who leads the Affective Intelligence and Robotics Laboratory at the Cambridge Department of Computer and Technology, has studied how socially assistive robots can be used as mental wellbeing coaches for adults.
In recent years, he has also studied how they can be useful for children.
“After I became a mother, I was much more interested in how children express themselves as they grow up and how this might overlap with my work in robotics,” she said.
“Children are quite tactile and are attracted to technology.
“If they use a screen-based tool, they are withdrawn from the physical world.
“But robots are perfect because they’re in the physical world – they’re more interactive, so kids are more engaged.”
Co-author Dr Micol Spitale said: “We have no intention of replacing psychologists or other mental health professionals with robots, as their experience far exceeds anything a robot can do.
“However, our work suggests that robots could be a useful tool to help children open up and share things they may not be comfortable sharing at first.”
The researchers hope to expand their investigation in the future by including more participants and following them over time.
They are also investigating whether similar results could be obtained if children interact with the robot via video chat.
The results will be presented on Thursday at the 31st International Conference of the Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers (IEEE) on Robot and Human Interactive Communication (RO-MAN) in Naples, Italy.