Figure 1: Young female holding the hand of a humanoid robot.
Julia Chivu ’24
Children may be more open to robots than humans when it comes to their mental health. The growing rate of anxiety and depression among children in the United Kingdom motivated researchers to utilize this unique technology as they sought out better mental health resources in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. A team of computer scientists, psychiatrists, and roboticists from the University of Cambridge developed an experiment using a socially assistive robot (SAR) to question children about their mental health.
Twenty-eight children, ages 8 to 13, were instructed to fill out a questionnaire regarding their feelings prior to the experiment. Their parents and guardians also filled out the questionnaire regarding their child’s wellbeing. Then, the children were each placed into a room with an SAR for a 45-minute questioning session. The SAR first asked the children about happy and sad memories from the week prior. Afterwards, a Short Mood and Feelings Questionnaire, Children’s Apperception Test, and a Revised Children’s Anxiety and Depression Scale were administered by the SAR. During the Short Mood and Feelings Questionnaire, the children responded with “true,” “sometimes,” or “not true” based on questions asked in the questionnaire prior to the experiment. The Children’s Apperception Test consisted of the SAR asking what the children observed in a variety of pictures to identify the children’s personalities and well-being. In addition, the Revised Children’s Anxiety and Depression Scale required the children to respond to mood-related questions with “never,” “sometimes,” “often,” or “always.” To analyze the data, the researchers placed the children into groups by the degree of concern pertaining to their mental health.
The questions, when asked by the SAR, were shown to be more effective in identifying wellbeing concerns in the children than the parent and children-reported questionnaires. The experiment also revealed that the children placed in the group with the highest wellbeing-related concern provided more negative feedback to the SAR compared to the self-administered questionnaire. Ultimately, these SARs are a promising mental health tool. It may be easier for some children to communicate with the SAR in comparison to an adult, seeing as the SARs are small, child-like, and non-threatening. Interacting with the SAR can be beneficial for technologically inclined children to get comfortable with expressing themselves prior to communicating with an adult. In the future, this nontraditional method will likely allow children to be more emotionally open with SARs to better determine whether a child should seek professional help.
 N. Abbasi, et al., Can robots help in the evaluation of mental wellbeing in children? an empirical study. University of Cambridge Apollo, (2022).
 Image retrieved from: https://unsplash.com/photos/0E_vhMVqL9g