Avatars may help children with social anxiety overcome fears

UCF Psychology professor and UCF Anxiety Disorders Clinic Director Deborah Beidel has recently won a $500,000 grant from the The National Institute of Mental Health to fund the development of a new software that she hopes will allow children with social anxiety to overcome their fears.

Working with the Atlanta-based company Virtually Better, Beidel and her team of researchers have created a new 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 practice responding to 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 Beidel. “We have to teach them the skills that most people learn from being around other people.”

Beidel is looking for 30 children ages 8 to 12 with social anxiety disorders to participate in the free study. Participants will need to come to the UCF campus twice weekly. The study also will feature homework that children will do on either a home computer or a laptop that the research team will provide for free during the study. Parents or guardians who are interested in learning more about the study can call 407-823-4254.

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.

To read more about the study from Science Daily please visit their full story here. Slate Magazine recently wrote a piece about the avatars as well, which you can read here and Gizmodo, the popular technology blog, wrote a feature on the software as well, which you can view here.

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