How a Virtual Human Could Help Prevent Adolescent Depression
Charles Q. Choi, InnovationNewsDaily Contributor
February 16 2012 12:30 PM ET
A friendly "virtual human," programmable by age, gender and ethnicity, could help teens with depression in an online program.
CREDIT: Faiz Zaki | Shutterstock.com
"We think this will be especially helpful for kids, who often are reluctant to see a therapist," said psychologist David Mohr at Northwestern University's Feinberg School of Medicine.
Existing online tools to help treat depression "look like homework," Mohr said, which may be a counterproductive approach, especially for teens. Instead, the virtual human is more engaging because interacting with it feels like a game.
The prototype virtual human now being developed by researchers at Northwestern University and the University of Southern California will address interpersonal skills, the lack of which can be both a cause and a consequence of depression.
"Having trouble with those situations makes people more vulnerable to depression," Mohr said. "When people have the confidence and skills to better manage difficult interpersonal interactions, they are less likely to become depressed."
The program, accessed online, will allow people to practice what may be difficult social interactions in the safety of a virtual space, providing feedback and advice on the effects of different ways of interacting.
"If someone has a difficult time saying no, or a difficult time registering a complaint with somebody, we can program that in," Mohr told InnovationNewsDaily. "They can make the virtual person look like whatever they want — older, younger, change the gender or ethnicity. They don't look completely real — they're slightly cartoonish, which a lot of the literature suggests is better, because if it's too close to real but not perfect, it makes people uncomfortable."
Two pilot trials will evaluate the systems as an Internet treatment for adults with depression and adolescents at risk of depression.
"We'll begin usability testing for our studies in the next month or two," Mohr said.