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Robot “confidante” helps children open up

A study by Cambridge University suggests that robots could be better at detecting mental well-being issues among children than humans.

The study had 28 participants aged eight to 13 talk to Nao, a small humanoid robot. Children were left alone to chat with the robot for 45 minutes as their parents or guardians and the research team observed from an adjacent room.

The experiment showed children speaking candidly to a 60cm-tall robot. Some participants disclosed more information to Nao than a human adult or an online questionnaire they filled out beforehand. The robot seemed to have enabled children to divulge their true feelings and experiences, the research team said.

“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,” Nida Itrat Abbasi, the study’s first author, explained.

The study showed children with possible well-being issues to give more negative responses to standard questions asked by the robot than in traditional questionnaires, while those without were more positive. All reported enjoying the experience, with researchers noting it was the first time robots were used to assess mental well-being in children.

“There are times when traditional methods aren’t able to catch mental well-being lapses in children, as sometimes the changes are incredibly subtle,” Abbasi said.

The researchers said robots could enhance traditional mental health assessment methods but will not replace mental health professionals.

“We don’t have any intention of replacing psychologists or other mental health professionals with robots since their expertise far surpasses anything a robot can do,” Micol Spitale, one of the study’s co-authors, said. “However, our work suggests that robots could be a useful tool in helping children to open up and share things they might not be comfortable sharing at first.”

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