Can social robots improve children’s mental health? What we know and what we still need to learn

This blog post discusses some of the key findings from the article “Socially Assistive Robots as Mental Health Interventions for Children: A Scoping Review” published in the International Journal of Social Robotics (2020, paper here).

What is a social robot?

Social robots are small robotic devices that are capable of social interactions, such as cooperation, instruction and play. The robots can be shaped like animals (e.g., Aibo – the robotic dog (Fig. 1(a)) or characters (e.g. humanoid robot Nao (Fig. 1(b)). Among other functions, social robots can play a therapeutic role (1), serve as companions (2) and aid in education (3,4). One of the application areas of social robotics is therapy for children with autism spectrum disorder. In this domain, robotic companions have the potential to improve a variety of behavioural outcomes, including social and language skills (5). Social robots are also used with older populations. For example, robots like Paro (Fig. 1(c)) are being used in elder care settings. This baby harp seal lookalike helps reduce loneliness and agitation among residents (6).

Fig. 1 Commonly used social robots Aibo (a)(7), Nao (b)(8), Paro (c)(9).

A new mental health intervention for children

Since social robots seem to have a positive impact on mental health in different populations, there is a growing interest in using them as a tool to promote and improve mental health among children. As a result, a number of studies are being conducted to test social robots in this relatively new domain. In the Neuroscience Engagement and Smart Tech (NEST) Lab, we collected and analyzed the existing research studies which investigate the use of social robots to improve children’s mental health (10), to get a fuller view on what interventions are being tested and how.  

What we know: Feasibility and short-term effects

Using social robots to benefit children’s mental health is a new and rapidly developing field. Hence, the majority of currently available studies are intended as means of exploring what is possible and what could be effective in the future. The studies usually include a single session with the robot, which shows only short-term outcomes of the interaction. While the evidence does not allow for drawing strong and long-term conclusions, the studies in our sample demonstrate that various robotic interventions are feasible. We know that social robots can be introduced and deployed in therapy, clinical and other settings. But perhaps the most crucial aspect of determining whether robotic companions could be successful, is the fact that children participating in the studies usually showed a positive response to the robots and were engaged in the interaction, e.g., distraction during vaccination (11). This positive reception makes the developments in the use of social robots promising.

What we still need to learn: Effectiveness and social impact

To be able to draw conclusions about the effectiveness of robotic interventions we need more evidence. Future research in this field needs to systematically address well-focused questions around specific outcomes (e.g., stress reduction). Additionally, potential social impacts of the robots should be more carefully considered. Robots are intended to be introduced into different environments as social entities. For example, a robot present at a hospital to distract children during medical procedures will likely affect others around the child such as parents and nurses. Moving forward, we need to learn more not only about specific social robot interventions that can be helpful, but also about how introducing social robots into new environments will affect social dynamics.

What about ethics?

Conducting child-robot interaction research comes with unique ethical concerns. In our scoping review of the literature, we found that the majority of studies in the sample provide only generalized statements about the assent process used (10). Transparency about how the robot is introduced and described  to young participants is crucial, as children of different ages may have different beliefs about the animacy of robots. Other notable ethical considerations include attachment and deception. For example, children could experience distress when the robot is taken away or mistreated (12). The key to proactively addressing these ethical issues could be using participatory approaches throughout the research process. Working together with children and parents will help minimize the risk and maximize the benefit of future social robot mental health interventions.

Acknowledgements to the leaders of this work Dr. Julie Robillard and Dr. Tony Prescott.


  1. Howard AM. Robots learn to play: robots emerging role in pediatric therapy. FLAIRS Conference. 2013 May; Available from:
  2. Abdi J, Al-Hindawi A, Ng T, Vizcaychipi MP. Scoping review on the use of socially assistive robot technology in elderly care. BMJ Open. 2018 Feb 1;8(2):e018815.
  3. Looije R, Neerincx MA, Peters JK, Henkemans OAB. Integrating Robot Support Functions into Varied Activities at Returning Hospital Visits. Int J of Soc Robotics. 2016 Aug 1;8(4):483–97.
  4. Ros R, Oleari E, Pozzi C, Sacchitelli F, Baranzini D, Bagherzadhalimi A, et al. A Motivational Approach to Support Healthy Habits in Long-term Child–Robot Interaction. Int J of Soc Robotics. 2016 Nov 1;8(5):599–617.
  5. Pennisi P, Tonacci A, Tartarisco G, Billeci L, Ruta L, Gangemi S, et al. Autism and social robotics: A systematic review. Autism Research. 2016;9(2):165–83.
  6. Pu L, Moyle W, Jones C, Todorovic M. The Effectiveness of Social Robots for Older Adults: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis of Randomized Controlled Studies. Gerontologist. 2019;59(1):e37–51.
  7. Entertainment Robot “aibo” Announced. Sony Group Portal – Sony Global Headquarters. [cited 2021 Jun 29]. Available from:
  8. Nao – ROBOTS: Your Guide to the World of Robotics. [cited 2021 Jun 29]. Available from:
  9. Purchasing PARO seal. [cited 2021 Jun 29]. Available from:
  10. Kabacińska K, Prescott TJ, Robillard JM. Socially Assistive Robots as Mental Health Interventions for Children: A Scoping Review. Int J of Soc Robotics .2020 Jul 27;10.1007/s12369-020-00679-0.
  11. Beran TN, Ramirez-Serrano A, Vanderkooi OG, Kuhn S. Reducing children’s pain and distress towards flu vaccinations: A novel and effective application of humanoid robotics. Vaccine. 2013 Jun 7;31(25):2772–7.
  12. Kahn Jr. PH, Kanda T, Ishiguro H, Freier NG, Severson RL, Gill BT, et al. “Robovie, you’ll have to go into the closet now”: Children’s social and moral relationships with a humanoid robot. Developmental Psychology. 2012;48(2):303–14.

Pop culture’s uncanny valley

Given Japan’s traditional lead in robotics, it is perhaps no surprise that the all-female Japanese pop idol group AKB 48 has just added a robot to its cast of 61 members. There is a great article over at Atlantic Wire about the synthetic band adding a synthetic member to their group.

It turns out that this kind of advance is both mesmerizing and at the same time evokes the proverbial yuk factor. As robots appear more and more human, we tend to accept them up to a certain point, and then it becomes downright creepy. Masahiro Mori, a Japanese robotics scientist, described the phenomenon as Bukimi no Tani Genshō (不気味の谷現象) which translates into ‘uncanny valley’, shown in the figure above.

The phenomenon of the uncanny valley is not just something that humans appreciate: it appears to exist in sub-human primates as well. What is not clear is whether given repeated exposure to such golems, humans will become desensitized and the uncanny valley will disappear. After all, when heart transplants were first described, there was both universal astonishment and outrage (a good summary can be found in this pdf); today, in jurisdictions where such procedures are common, heart transplants barely merit mention.

The uncanny valley has also been suggested to be a challenge to acceptance of the types of radical enhancement that transhumanists envision – James Cascio has written a thoughtful piece on the topic, dubbing it the second uncanny valley.

Of course, as with all things, there is nothing new under the (rising) sun. Predating AKB48’s addition of a robot to pop culture, Jonathan Brigg penned a song with the title Bukimi No Tani (the Uncanny Valley). Listen and enjoy.

Image from Steckenfinger and Ghazanfar