Researchers at the University of Central Florida's Anxiety Disorders Clinic along with Atlanta-based company Virtually Better have created a virtual game world where children with social anxiety can practice to become more comfortable in social situations.
The computer simulation program enables children to interact with avatars playing the roles of classmates, teachers and a principal. The virtual world is designed for children ages 8 – 12, and allows clinicians to play the roles of those important avatars while the children play on a computer in a different room and respond to situations they encounter routinely. The program allows them to practice greeting people, giving and receiving compliments, being assertive when appropriate and asking and answering questions.
"These kids come in and say, 'I don't know how to make a friend,'" said Deborah Beidel, director of the Anxiety Disorders Clinic and a psychology professor at UCF. "We have to teach them the skills that most people learn from being around other people."
The virtual world program and a 12-week study on its results were possible thanks to a $500,000 grant from the National Institute of Mental Health (part of the National Institutes of Health). The study will involve 30 Central Florida children ages 8 – 12.
"If a fear is so severe that it prevents a child from doing something he or she should be doing, such as going to school, playing on a sports team, being in a dance recital, going to birthday parties or making friends, then a parent should call a mental health professional," Beidel said.
The virtual world offers a realistic school setting designed with the help of elementary school teachers. The pre-programmed responses of the avatar classmates – which include a "cool" girl, a "smart" girl and a "bully" – were recorded by children to ensure the language reflects how they talk. The game features around six characters and offers varying levels of difficulty.
If this initial trial goes well, researchers hope to conduct a year-long trial with even more children, and if that is successful the simulation could then become available to medical professionals.
You can learn more about the UCF's Anxiety Disorders Clinic at anxietyclinic.cos.ucf.edu.