A new program by the UCF Anxiety Disorders Clinic will use a virtual simulation program to help socially anxious children overcome anxiety and develop social graces. The study, which begins next week, will use a $500,000 grant from the National Institute of Mental Health over two years to observe children practice and develop their social skills by interacting with simulated avatars.
On Monday, 15 children between the ages of 8 and 12 will begin the study by visiting the clinic twice a week and learning how to act in social situations such as saying hello, giving and receiving a compliment and asking questions. After practicing these situations with an instructor, the children will practice them in the virtual world with the help of a computer program developed by Virtually Better Inc., an Atlanta-based company that specializes in virtual reality programs for behavioral therapy.
Deborah Beidel, a professor in UCF’s psychology department and the director of the UCF Anxiety Disorders Clinic, said that young children often develop social anxiety early on, and if they don’t have the proper support early on, it can continue into their adult years.
“We know that children who get the disorder [between the ages of 8 and 12] are not going to outgrow it without help, so it’s a very important age period,” Beidel said.
The program will last for 12 weeks through August and features six different virtual characters in a variety of situations. Scenarios revolve around circumstances that the children face every day at school, including talking to the popular kid in school, asking questions to a gym teacher and standing up to a bully who wants you to do his homework. After the patient responds, a researcher in an adjacent room, who is observing the child, will initiate a pre-recorded response through the avatar and keep the conversation going.
Beidel said that the clinic’s current treatment for social anxiety is effective, with 70 percent of the patients overcoming their disorder and the other 30 percent with a visibly improved social ability. After receiving social skills training at the clinic, parents take their children out to populated places such as a bowling alley or an arcade to do their “homework," which involves practicing these skills in a realistic setting by conversing with other children and adults they might not know.
“You can get very good at teaching people to be very skilled, in this room, and they don’t always do it when they leave," Beidel said. "Part of social skills training is having people practice in different environments with different people, and take those skills out into the community.”
But the treatment is time consuming and costly, which prodded Beidel and her team to investigate other forms of treatment. The virtual technology program allows the researchers to conduct more exact research in a shorter period of time. The majority of the grant money will go toward buying laptops and webcams for the patients, who can participate free of charge. The clinic will also put funding toward purchasing and improving the avatar program from Virtually Better Inc., which includes increasing the number of avatars from six to eight.
“This is the first time we’ve actually developed the software [with a software company],” said Nina Wong, a graduate student with the program studying clinical psychology. “Previously, we’ve purchased the software. There’s less control when buying a product as opposed to developing a project. That was really exciting for me as a graduate student to be a part of that experience.”
If the first phase is successful, Beidel and Wong hope to double the number of patients for a total of 30 next fall, and within three years, have the program ready for use in other clinics.
“I really think the fact that in this new world interested in technology, there are a lot of people who are using computers more," Wong said. "For children in therapy, it’s bringing in that area of interest for them. … This is a great way to use science and what’s current to help a clinical population.”
According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, anxiety disorders affect 40 million adults in the United States, making them the most common mental illness in the country. The epidemic is also expensive: Patients often seek physical treatment for their mental symptoms, leading to repeated uses of health care services, which adds up to more than $22.84 billion yearly. Anxiety disorders cost the U.S. more than $42 billion a year.