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Robots better than humans at detecting mental well-being issues in children


Robots can be better at detecting mental well-being issues in children than parent-reported or self-reported testing, say U.K. researchers.

The researchers behind a new study, presented at the 31st IEEE International Conference on Robot & Human Interactive Communication (RO-MAN) in Naples, Italy, have suggested that robots could be a useful addition to traditional methods of mental health assessment.

“There are times when traditional methods aren’t able to catch mental well-being lapses in children, as sometimes the changes are incredibly subtle,” said Nida Itrat Abbasi, a PhD student at Cambridge (England) Affective Computing and Robotics Group, University of Cambridge, and the study’s first author. “We wanted to see whether robots might be able to help with this process,” she explained.

The authors highlighted how, during the COVID-19 pandemic, home schooling, financial pressures, and isolation from peers and friends impacted the mental health of many children. Even before the pandemic however, anxiety and depression among children in the United Kingdom has been on the rise, but the resources and support to address mental well-being are severely limited.

Children engage with robots

For their study the research team – which comprised roboticists, computer scientists, and psychiatrists from the University of Cambridge – enrolled 28 participants between ages 8 and 13 years. While being observed from an adjacent room by a parent or guardian, along with members of the research team, the participants took part in a one-to-one 45-minute session with a Nao robot – a humanoid robot about 60 cm tall – that administered a series of standard psychological questionnaires to assess the mental well-being of each participant.

Participants interacted with the robot throughout the session 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.

Professor Hatice Gunes, affective intelligence and robotics laboratory, department of computer science, University of Cambridge, said: “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 If they’re using a screen-based tool, they’re withdrawn from the physical world,” she said. “But robots are perfect because they’re in the physical world – they’re more interactive, so the children are more engaged.”

Prior to each session the children and their parent or guardian completed standard online questionnaires to assess each child’s mental well-being.

During each session, the robot performed four different tasks:

  • Asked open-ended questions about happy and sad memories over the last week.
  • Administered the Short Mood and Feelings Questionnaire (SMFQ).
  • Administered a picture task inspired by the Children’s Apperception Test (CAT), where children are asked to answer questions related to pictures shown.
  • Administered the Revised Children’s Anxiety and Depression Scale (RCADS) for generalized anxiety, panic disorder, and low mood.

Following the SMFQ children were divided into three different groups according to how likely they were to be struggling with their mental well-being.

The researchers found that children with varying levels of well-being concerns interacted differently with the robot. For children that might not be experiencing mental well-being–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 well-being–related concerns, the robot may have enabled them to divulge their true feelings and experiences, leading to more negative response ratings to the questionnaire.


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