While there has been a steady rise in anxiety and depression cases among children in recent years, the COVID-19 pandemic seemed to exacerbate them. Whether due to social isolation, familial financial issues, or home schooling, children have seen much higher rates of mental health problems, though the ability to support these children has been lacking.
Assessing mental health issues, however, is another challenge entirely. Often, assessing mental health issues in children relies on a combination of self-report and parent-reports about a child’s wellbeing. The problem is that children are not always open and honest with children, making it difficult for clinicians to produce accurate assessments of a child’s mental health.
A team of researchers at the University of Cambridge recently conducted a study exploring the role that robots (that’s right, robots) might play in helping parents and clinicians make more accurate mental health assessments. The team’s work was presented on September 1 at the 31st IEEE International Conference on Robot & Human Interactive Communication.
As part of the study, researchers followed about 28 children between the ages of 8 and 13. In the study, researchers used a small, child-size robot with human-like qualities to conduct questionnaires to assess each child’s mental health and develop an evaluation.
These robots, called socially-assistive robots, have potential to support not only adults (which they have been studied with in the past) but children as well. The lead researcher, Professor Hatice Gunes, highlighted that robots present the best of both worlds for children. Children find technology fascinating, though tools like online questionnaires take them away from the physical world, which can have drawbacks. Robots are more physically present and engaging for children.
Interestingly, children not only shared relevant information with the robot, but they also appeared to be more open to sharing details that they might not have shared with their parents or another adult clinician. The research team cautions that while the robot could be valuable in helping conduct mental health assessments, the robot should not take the place of a qualified mental health care professional.