How an avatar can help anxious children

Children who experience social anxiety may be able to overcome their fears with the help of avatar simulation, new research has found. Investigators from the University of Central Florida's (UCF's) Anxiety Disorders Clinic and virtual reality environment creator Virtually Better have developed a new program that encourages youngsters to interact with computer-generated classmates and teachers.

The initiative sees eight to 12-year-olds given the opportunity to speak openly with these avatars - controlled by clinicians in another room - and practice ways in which they might converse with those they meet in the school environment.

As such, kids who are usually shy can learn how to greet others, ask and answer questions, act assertively and give and receive compliments.

Deborah Beidel, Director of the Anxiety Disorders Clinic and a Psychology Professor at UCF, noted: "These kids come in and say, 'I don't know how to make a friend' ... we have to teach them the skills that most people learn from being around other people."

Professor Andy Field from the University of Sussex, a Chartered Psychologist, comments:

"Anxiety is the most common childhood psychological disorder, affecting around three per cent of British children. It can be a very debilitating problem that is associated with serious impairments in children’s academic and social functioning and is a major risk factor for subsequent psychological problem. There is a growing body of work showing that virtual environments can be useful tools in treating anxiety (and other psychological problems) in adults and that youths can engage with computerised treatments for anxiety.

Therefore, although this research hasn't been conducted yet, it is a very exciting prospect. Recent UK government initiatives emphasise the need for early intervention and promotion of emotional health in children, and the software developed for this project is exactly the kind of thing that could be rolled out to 'at risk' children to help them to develop social skills and prevent their anxiety from worsening to clinical levels. Professor Beidel is an international leader in the field so we can be confident that the study will be well conducted. I await the results of the study will immense interest."