Will avatars help children with social anxiety overcome fears?

June 15, 2012
avatars_help_children

Avatars play the roles of classmates, teachers and a principal. The children practice greetings, giving and receiving compliments, being assertive and asking and OKanswering questions. (Credit: Virtually Better Inc.)

computer simulation program that enables children to interact with avatars to reduce social anxiety has been developed by the University of Central Florida Anxiety Disorders Clinic and the Atlanta-based company Virtually Better .

The simulation, designed for children ages 8 to 12, allows clinicians to play the roles of the avatars while the children sit at a computer in a different room and respond to situations they encounter routinely. The children practice greetings, giving and receiving compliments, being assertive and asking and answering questions.

The National Institute of Mental Health provided a $500,000 grant to fund the development of the software and a 12-week study that will begin this summer. The study will involve 30 Central Florida children ages 8 to 12.

The six characters and the varying levels of difficulty in the simulation allow clinicians to design scenarios appropriate for their patients. More challenging scenarios include dealing with a bully who is demanding that a child give up some of her lunch money.

If the initial trial goes well, researchers hope to conduct a yearlong trial with more children. If that is successful, the simulation could then become available to clinicians. The program eventually could be expanded to include other settings, such as playgrounds, and to serve other children who need help improving social skills.

Virtually Better, Inc., based in Decatur, Georgia, was founded in 1996 with the goal of creating virtual reality environments for use in the treatment of anxiety disorders such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), fear of public speaking, fear of flying, and fear of heights. Its team of psychologists and technologists is dedicated to advancing the state of the art in behavioral healthcare.

Reality check: will learning to cope in a virtual world help, or lead to restricting patients to Facebook-type interaction and less coping in the real world? And why not open this software up to millions of people and lets us all try it — and improve it? — Ed.