A new computer simulation using avatars to simulate various social experiences is being tested by researchers at the University of Central Florida and Virtually Better, the Atlanta-based manufacturer. This computer simulation helps children with social anxiety disorders learn and practice skills needed to interact with classmates and make friends.
Social anxiety disorder (SAD) is more than shyness. It impacts a child’s ability to make friends, answer questions in class or fit in with their classmates. They are often afraid of being criticized and feel no one likes them. They may be afraid to speak in front of others and some refuse to eat when other people are present. Children with SAD may have frequent headaches or stomach aches, wanting to stay home from school to avoid having to interact with others.
The new simulation, as reported by ScienceDaily, is designed to help children between 8 and 12 years old. Children sit at a computer while the clinician sits in a different room on a computer. Different scenarios are created to help the child practice different aspects of social situations, such as greeting another student, giving compliments, receiving compliments and asking and answering questions. The program also helps students become more assertive.
Clinicians have the ability to create scenarios based on each child’s needs. It includes six preprogrammed characters, such as the cool girl, a smart girl and a bully. Scenarios range in difficulty level; dealing with a bully is considered one of the more difficult situations. Elementary school teachers helped create the program and children’s voices are used for the avatars to make the simulation more realistic. Clinicians can adapt the scenarios, leading children through the more basic ones and, as the levels are mastered and the child feels more comfortable, moving to more difficult ones.
Right now, this program is in the initial trial stages but the program has been awarded a grant of $500,000 to fund a 12-week study and the development of the software. Researchers are currently looking for 30 participants who live near the University of Central Florida or would be able to come in to the center for the duration of the study. (Interested participants can call 407-823-4254 for further information).
Researchers hope to see success during the initial 12-week study and then expand it to a 12 month trial. If all goes well, they hope to make the simulation available to clinicians outside of the University of Central Florida. Families in many smaller communities do not have access to different treatment options; having this program available can assist in treatment of children with social anxiety disorder throughout the country.
For more information on anxiety in children: