Confiding in robots: a new tool for assessing children’s mental wellbeing

The developing relationship between humans and robots continues with a new experiment showing some children might be more willing to share information when a robot conducts mental health assessments, instead of a human being or an online questionnaire.

A team of roboticists, computer scientists and psychiatrists from the University of Cambridge in the UK used a robot to deliver a set of standard psychological assessments to 28 children aged between eight and 13.

They found the children were willing to confide in the robot, and in some cases shared information they had not yet shared in standard online or in-person questionnaires.

The study, which was presented at the International Conference on Robot & Human Interactive Communication underway in Naples in Italy, is thought to be the first time that robots have been used to assess mental wellbeing in children.

“There are times when traditional methods aren’t able to catch mental wellbeing lapses in children, as sometimes the changes are incredibly subtle,” said Nida Itrat Abbasi, an author of the study.

“We wanted to see whether robots might be able to help with this process.”

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In the study, each child took part in a one-to-one 45-minute session with a Nao robot – a humanoid robot about 60 centimetres tall.

The robot performed four different tasks. First, it asked the child open-ended questions about happy and sad memories over the past week.

The other three tasks involved administering three standard tests: the Short Mood and Feelings Questionnaire; the Children’s Apperception Test (where children are asked questions related to pictures); and the Revised Children’s Anxiety and Depression Scale.  

Small size micol with robot nao
Dr Micol Spitale, one of the study’s authors with the Nao robot / Credit Rachel Gardner

The children interacted with the robot by speaking or by touching sensors on its hands and feet. Each child’s heartbeat, head and eye movements were also tracked using sensors.

A parent or guardian, along with members of the research team, observed from an adjacent room. Prior to each session, children and their parent or guardian completed standard online questionnaires to assess each child’s mental wellbeing.

The children participating all said they enjoyed talking to the robot. Some shared information with the robot that they hadn’t shared either in person or on the online 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 Abbasi.

“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.”

The results indicate robots could be a useful tool for assessing mental wellbeing in children but are not a substitute for human interaction or the expertise of psychologists or other mental health professionals.

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