Computer programs have long been used to help teach children important life skills: Mavis Beacon Teaches Typing a shining early example of a virtual world in which kids could learn.
And as the technology has improved, so too has its application. The University of Central Florida Anxiety Disorders Clinic in partnership with the Atlanta-based company Virtually Better Inc., has developed a computer simulation program in which children ages 8-12 interact with customizable avatars in order to overcome their own social anxiety.
The software was developed with funds from a $500,000 grant from the National Institute of Mental Health; a 12-week study, involving 30 child participants, will begin this summer in Central Florida.
Set in a simulated school-setting, the program's six avatars—a principal, a gym teacher, a classroom teacher, a "popular" girl, a "mean" boy, and a "smart" girl—are controlled by physicians from a computer in a separate room. The child participants are set up at computer stations of their own and asked to respond to social scenarios of varying levels of difficulty. (A cool, popular girl asking "Do you want to sit with me at lunch," would be an example for an easier level; a harder level might have a child face a bully character demanding the child give up her lunch money.) Through these interactive exercises, the kids practice greetings, giving and receiving compliments, being assertive and asking and answering questions.
If the initial trial goes well, a yearlong trial involving more children will be the next step. And if the program achieves continued success in trial, it would then be made available to clinicians and further developed to include other virtual types of social settings.
"The most important thing is that this was designed by clinicians with a very specific intention to help people get better," said Josh Spitalnick, clinical psychologist and director of research and clinical services at Virtually Better Inc.. "That's the big difference between this and a game, and there is nothing like this on the market." [Kurzweil via Slate - Image via Rob Marmion/Shutterstock]