Robots Could Be a Useful Tool in Assessing Children’s Mental Health

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Key Takeaways

  • A new study had two-feet-tall robots evaluate children’s mental health.
  • Children were more likely to open up to the robots than in a previously supplied questionnaire.
  • A balance of technology and human-interaction may benefit patient care.

Talking to an adult about feelings can be an uncomfortable experience for children and adolescents. While a mental health professional can provide a confidential space, the first few interactions can still feel like you’re speaking with a stranger and bring a sense of uneasiness.

But what if they could share how they honestly feel without interacting directly with another human? With this in mind, a recent study from the University of Cambridge tested a robot’s effectiveness in determining children’s well-being.

The study involved 28 children between the ages of eight and 13 and their parents or guardians completing a well-being questionnaire focused on the young individual. Then the children spent 45 minutes with a two-feet-tall humanoid robot.

The robot in the study asked participants open-ended questions about happy and sad memories over the last week, administered the Short Mood and Feelings Questionnaire and the Revised Children’s Anxiety and Depression Scale, and had children respond to prompts around pictures. The parent or guardian and research team members observed the interaction from a separate room.

Children with mental well-being issues or concerns were likelier to divulge the extent of these problems to the robot. Researchers also found they felt more negatively than stated in the initial questionnaire. On the other hand, children without previously stated mental well-being concerns presented an even more positive image to the robots.

Why Kids Might Be More Likely To Open Up To A Robot

For anyone with a toy or imaginary friend they would talk to as a child—or adult, no shame—the idea that children would share more with a small robot than parents or mental health professionals is easy to understand.

As Dr. Katherine Grill, a behavioral scientist, and CEO and co-founder of Neolth, explains: “Not all children have a secure attachment style, meaning that they feel safe and connected to their caregivers. Children without secure attachments often find comfort in companions such as imaginary friends, pets, or even toys. In this instance, a robot may serve as a viable option for a child to open up about their well-being.” 

Even in cases when a child has a secure attachment style, a robot may still provide them with “a non-judgmental, non-human relationship that they can trust and talk to and share things that they may not otherwise be comfortable sharing,” says Y. Mimi Ryans, LCSW-C, RPT-S, CCPT, owner and lead therapist at Lighthouse Center for Therapy & Play. 

Katherine Grill, PhD

Children without secure attachments often find comfort in companions such as imaginary friends, pets, or even toys.

— Katherine Grill, PhD

Mental health professionals are undoubtedly critical and can be incredibly beneficial to their patients’ lives.

Still, children who recently met them may not feel comfortable opening up to an adult they view as a stranger, says Dr. Aaron Haddock, MEd, PhD, associate professor of practice at the Frances L. Hiatt School of Psychology and director of Behavioral Health Initiatives and Programs at the Mosakowski Institute for Public Enterprise at Clark University.

He goes on to explain how, in contrast, a friendly child-size robot could create a comfortable, safe space to share without feeling pressure. 

Balancing Tech and Human Interaction

While this study demonstrated the benefit of robots, it doesn’t remove the need for human interaction in the mental health field (or regulation of technology-based intakes).

“In my opinion, the notion of technology-enabled mental health services and supports is the key to balancing tech and mental health interactions,” says Haddock. “Tech-enabled services means digital tools support and even enhanced care, but they do not supplant work with a human being. After all, the relationship between client and provider is a key driver of positive treatment outcomes.”  

Aaron Haddock, PhD

Tech-enabled services means digital tools support and even enhanced care, but they do not supplant work with a human being.

— Aaron Haddock, PhD

The study’s co-author, Dr. Micol Spitale, further emphasized that these interactions with robots should be supplemental to human-centered work. 

However, another potential benefit of innovation such as robot-led assessments is a reduction in caseload and burnout—an issue existing long before the COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated it. A 2012 review found between 21% and 67% of mental health professionals experienced burnout.

Haddock is encouraged that robots may be able to help pediatric mental health professionals conduct assessments with greater ease and efficiency. Ryans also believes robots may help with burnout but is unsure of the extent as professionals must still attend sessions at this time. 

What This Means For You

While technology in mental health care is incredibly promising and is already utilized in a myriad of successful ways, it doesn’t remove the barriers to access many people face when in need of mental health care. Haddock puts it candidly, “As we innovate and invest in these resources, we must ensure that all people have access to the kind of local, personal care they want, need, and deserve.”

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