Forum for Science, Industry and Business

Sponsored by:     3M 
Search our Site:


Avatars may help children with social anxiety overcome fears

A principal standing in the hallway says, "You are one of my favorite students!" In class, a smart girl says, "You are the nicest person in our class!"

Many children would smile and eagerly return those compliments, but some with social anxiety may be too terrified to respond.

Researchers at the University of Central Florida's Anxiety Disorders Clinic and the Atlanta-based company Virtually Better want to give more children with social anxiety the practice they need to become comfortable in social situations. They have developed a new, one-of-a-kind computer simulation program that enables children to interact with avatars playing the roles of classmates, teachers and a principal.

The simulation, designed for children ages 8 to 12, allows clinicians to play the roles of the avatars while the children sit at a computer in a different room and respond to situations they encounter routinely. The children practice greetings, giving and receiving compliments, being assertive 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 National Institute of Mental Health, part of the National Institutes of Health, provided a $500,000 grant to fund the development of the software and a 12-week study that will begin this summer. The study will involve 30 Central Florida children ages 8 to 12.

Many children are nervous and slow to warm up in new social situations, but those with social anxiety disorders have severe distress that doesn't go away, Beidel said.

"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," she said.

Under Beidel's leadership, the UCF Anxiety Disorders Clinic has treated children with anxiety disorders for five years. The clinic offers what Beidel calls the "gold standard" of treatments. Children with anxiety disorders are paired with socially comfortable peers for outings to places such as bowling alleys, restaurants and miniature golf courses.

The new study will give parents multiple treatment options at UCF. But parents in most communities aren't so fortunate. Many clinicians who treat children don't have the time or resources to recruit socially comfortable children and organize regular outings. Guiding clients through a simulation in the office may be the only feasible solution for them.

The simulation features 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 most important thing is that this was designed by clinicians with a very specific intention to help people get better. That's the big difference between this and a game, and there is nothing like this on the market," said Josh Spitalnick, clinical psychologist and director of research and clinical services at Virtually Better, an Atlanta-based company bringing interactive technologies to behavioral healthcare for treatment and training.

The six characters and the varying levels of difficulty in the simulation allow clinicians to design scenarios appropriate for their patients. More challenging scenarios include dealing with a bully who is demanding that a child give up some of her lunch money.

If the initial trial goes well, researchers hope to conduct a yearlong trial with more children. If that is successful, the simulation could then become available to clinicians. The program eventually could be expanded to include other settings, such as playgrounds, and to serve other children who need help improving social skills.

For more information about UCF's Anxiety Disorders Clinic, go to For more information about Virtually Better Technologies, visit

Chad Binette | EurekAlert!
Further information:

More articles from Studies and Analyses:

nachricht Diagnoses: When Are Several Opinions Better Than One?
19.07.2016 | Max-Planck-Institut für Bildungsforschung

nachricht High in calories and low in nutrients when adolescents share pictures of food online
07.04.2016 | University of Gothenburg

All articles from Studies and Analyses >>>

The most recent press releases about innovation >>>

Die letzten 5 Focus-News des innovations-reports im Überblick:

Im Focus: Light-driven atomic rotations excite magnetic waves

Terahertz excitation of selected crystal vibrations leads to an effective magnetic field that drives coherent spin motion

Controlling functional properties by light is one of the grand goals in modern condensed matter physics and materials science. A new study now demonstrates how...

Im Focus: New 3-D wiring technique brings scalable quantum computers closer to reality

Researchers from the Institute for Quantum Computing (IQC) at the University of Waterloo led the development of a new extensible wiring technique capable of controlling superconducting quantum bits, representing a significant step towards to the realization of a scalable quantum computer.

"The quantum socket is a wiring method that uses three-dimensional wires based on spring-loaded pins to address individual qubits," said Jeremy Béjanin, a PhD...

Im Focus: Scientists develop a semiconductor nanocomposite material that moves in response to light

In a paper in Scientific Reports, a research team at Worcester Polytechnic Institute describes a novel light-activated phenomenon that could become the basis for applications as diverse as microscopic robotic grippers and more efficient solar cells.

A research team at Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI) has developed a revolutionary, light-activated semiconductor nanocomposite material that can be used...

Im Focus: Diamonds aren't forever: Sandia, Harvard team create first quantum computer bridge

By forcefully embedding two silicon atoms in a diamond matrix, Sandia researchers have demonstrated for the first time on a single chip all the components needed to create a quantum bridge to link quantum computers together.

"People have already built small quantum computers," says Sandia researcher Ryan Camacho. "Maybe the first useful one won't be a single giant quantum computer...

Im Focus: New Products - Highlights of COMPAMED 2016

COMPAMED has become the leading international marketplace for suppliers of medical manufacturing. The trade fair, which takes place every November and is co-located to MEDICA in Dusseldorf, has been steadily growing over the past years and shows that medical technology remains a rapidly growing market.

In 2016, the joint pavilion by the IVAM Microtechnology Network, the Product Market “High-tech for Medical Devices”, will be located in Hall 8a again and will...

All Focus news of the innovation-report >>>



Event News

#IC2S2: When Social Science meets Computer Science - GESIS will host the IC2S2 conference 2017

14.10.2016 | Event News

Agricultural Trade Developments and Potentials in Central Asia and the South Caucasus

14.10.2016 | Event News

World Health Summit – Day Three: A Call to Action

12.10.2016 | Event News

Latest News

First-time reconstruction of infectious bat influenza viruses

25.10.2016 | Life Sciences

Novel method to benchmark and improve the performance of protein measumeasurement techniques

25.10.2016 | Life Sciences

Amazon rain helps make more rain

25.10.2016 | Life Sciences

More VideoLinks >>>