Social Anxiety Disorder

Funded by the National Institute of Mental Health, Dr. Beidel and her team at the University of Central Florida’s Center for Trauma, Anxiety, Resilience and Prevention 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 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.

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(Photos courtesy of Virtually Better, Inc.)

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.

This program was featured in a UCF Today article:
Avatars May Help Children With Social Anxiety