Robots could be better at determining child wellbeing than people, study finds

5th September, 2022.      //   Technology  // 

nao robot children

Robots could be better at detecting the mental wellbeing of children than even their parents or self-reported testing, scientists have said.

The researchers from the University of Cambridge found that children would see the robot as a confidante and believed they wouldn’t get into trouble if they shared secrets with it. The study, conducted with 28 children between the ages of eight and 13, used a child-sized humanoid robot administrator to carry out a series of standard psychological questionnaires to assess the mental wellbeing of each participant.

Each child took part in a one-to-one 45-minute session with a Nao robot (pictured), a humanoid robot approximately 60cm tall. During each session, the robot performed different tasks including asking open-ended questions about happy and sad memories over the last week. It also used the ‘Revised Children’s Anxiety and Depression Scale’ (RCADS) to determine generalised anxiety, panic disorder and low mood.

Participants interacted with the robot throughout the session either 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.

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 said their study was the first time that robots have been used to assess mental wellbeing in children and that it showed that robots could be a useful addition to traditional methods of mental health assessment, even if they are not intended to be a substitute for professional mental health support.

“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 Professor Hatice Gunes, who leads Cambridge’s Affective Intelligence and Robotics Laboratory.

“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 If they’re using a screen-based tool, they’re withdrawn from the physical world. Robots are perfect because they’re in the physical world – they’re more interactive, so the children are more engaged.”

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.

“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, the study’s first author.

“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.”

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