The National Institute of Mental Health provided a $500,000 grant to fund the development of a computer simulation program that may help children with social anxiety, according to a press release from the University of Central Florida. The grant also includes funding for a 12-week study to test the effectiveness of the technology.
Researchers from the University of Central Florida (UFC) and the Atlanta-based company Virtually Better Inc. designed the simulation for children aged 8 to 12 years. It allows clinicians to play an avatar while interacting with children who operate a computer remotely. Children are asked to respond to situations they would encounter on a daily basis, such as practicing greetings, giving and receiving compliments, asserting themselves in conversation and asking and answering questions.
“These kids come in and say, ‘I don’t know how to make a friend,’” Deborah Beidel, PhD, director of the Anxiety Disorders Clinic and a psychology professor at UCF, said in the release. “We have to teach them the skills that most people learn from being around other people.”
The simulation features a realistic academic setting — designed with the help of elementary school teachers — and prearranged responses of avatar classmates that were recorded by children to ensure realism. With six different characters and varying levels of difficulty in the simulation, clinicians can design scenarios appropriate for their patients.
If the initial trial goes well, the researchers are looking to conduct a yearlong clinical trial, after which time they hope the simulation will become available to clinicians.
“The most important thing is that this was designed by clinicians with a very specific intention to help people get better,” Josh Spitalnick, PhD, director of clinical services at Virtually Better Inc., said in the release.