Robots can be better at detecting mental wellbeing issues in children than parent-reported or self-reported testing, a new study team of roboticists, computer scientists and psychiatrists from the University of Cambridge suggests.

The team carried out a study with 28 children between the ages of eight and 13, and had a child-sized humanoid robot administer a series of standard psychological questionnaires to assess the mental wellbeing of each participant.

The children, in fact, confided more in the robot, sharing information info that they had not yet rebvealed via the standard assessment method of online or in-person questionnaires, said the team. This is the first time that robots have been used to assess mental wellbeing of children.

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The researchers say that robots could be a useful addition to traditional methods of mental health assessment, although they are not intended to be a substitute for professional mental health support. The results will be presented today (1 September) at the 31st IEEE International Conference on Robot & Human Interactive Communication (RO-MAN) in Naples, Italy.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, home schooling, financial pressures, and isolation from peers and friends impacted the mental health of many children. 

Professor Hatice Gunes, who leads the Affective Intelligence and Robotics Laboratory in Cambridge's Department of Computer Science and Technology, says, "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."  She and her team in Cambridge's Department of Psychiatry designed an experiment to see if robots could be a useful tool 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, the study's first author. "We wanted to see whether robots might be able to help with this process."

Child robot found more trustworthy by children

For the study, 28 participants between ages eight and 13 each took part in a one-to-one 45-minute session with a Nao robot – a humanoid robot about 60 centimetres tall. 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 questionnaire to assess each child's mental wellbeing.

Children were divided into three different groups following the SMFQ, according to how likely they were to be struggling with their mental wellbeing. 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.

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Study participants all said they enjoyed talking with 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 researchers say that they hope to expand their survey in future to investigate whether similar results could be achieved if children interact with the robot via video chat as part of their research