Negative self-talk can damage a child’s self-esteem, lead to poor self-image, erode self-confidence and potentially lead to mental health issues like depression, anxiety, eating disorders, and more down the road. Can a new audio chatbot turn a kid’s negative inner voice toward the positive?
According to researchers at the University of Washington, the answer is yes. Its name is “Self-Talk with Superhero Zip.” Although the app is not yet publicly available, the results of a study of its efficacy are promising.
The web-based app is the brainchild of a team of researchers at UW’s Information School (iSchool) and aims to help children develop skills like self-awareness and emotional management. During the study, Superhero Zip guided pairs of siblings between the ages of 5 and 10 through lessons about supportive self-talk (the things people say to themselves either audibly or mentally).
After speaking with the app for a week, study authors reported, “We found that children could recall and accurately describe the lessons taught, and we saw indications of children applying self-talk in daily life.” Moreover, kids who’d engaged in negative self-talk before the study turned that habit around, at least during the study period.
The UW team had several reasons for developing and studying an educational chatbot. Positive self-talk has many benefits for kids, from improved sports performance to increased self-esteem and lower risk of depression. And previous studies have shown children can learn various tasks and abilities from chatbots. Despite that evidence, much research has yet to explore how chatbots can help kids effectively acquire socioemotional skills.
Sesame Street for a smart speaker
“There is room to design child-centric experiences with a chatbot that provides fun and educational practice opportunities without invasive data harvesting that compromises children’s privacy,” senior study author Alexis Hiniker said in a release. Hiniker is an iSchool associate professor.
“Over the last few decades, television programs like ‘Sesame Street,’ ‘Mister Rogers,’ and ‘Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood’ have shown that it is possible for the TV to help kids cultivate socioemotional skills,” Hiniker said. “We asked, ‘Can we make a space where kids can practice these skills in an interactive app?’ We wanted to create something useful and fun — a ‘Sesame Street’ experience for a smart speaker.”
The research team published its findings in June at the 2023 Interaction Design and Children conference.
Why superhero as a lesson guide? According to the study authors, “The use of the superhero was inspired by a classroom-based exercise developed by Harvard’s EASEL (Ecological Approaches to Social Emotional Learning) lab in which teachers encourage children to imagine a tiny superhero on their shoulder providing coaching input.”
Ten pairs of Seattle-area siblings participated in the study of the app (researchers decided to use siblings based on research showing children are more engaged when they use technology with another person).
How does it work?
During each 10-15 minute session, the sibs each worked through a 5-step process:
- Recap: First, the chatbot summarizes the social-emotional learning lessons from the prior day and prompts kids to answer the take-home question they were given at the end of the preceding session.
- Question of the day: Kids are asked a specific question related to the day’s storyline and learning goal, previewing the topic and situating the lesson.
- Story and learning activities: The app then provides a dramatic superhero story that teaches a new lesson and incorporates self-talk as a plot point. According to the study report: “The Superhero Zip serves as a supportive self-talk promoter encouraging kids to think constructively in different challenging contexts, including facing failure and managing frustration. The story also includes a supervillain character who promotes negative self-talk as a foil to the superhero. Users are prompted to answer two types of questions during each story: questions about the storyline and questions that encourage socioemotional learning.
- Reflection question: After summarizing the day’s lesson, kids are asked to reflect on it and discuss it with others using the program. They are also given structured prompts to help connect their own experiences to the story and consider how to use positive self-talk in a similar situation.
- Take-home question: At the end of the session, the app gives young users a question to take home and think about until the next session.
Five kids reported they used negative self-talk before the study. All five said their negative talk had been replaced with positive self-talk by the end of the study.
The UW research team is quick to point out study limitations:
First, it is unclear how long the effect of increased positive self-talk lasts after engaging with the chatbot. Second, the study authors point out that the tendency for survey participants to respond in ways that make them look good could lead kids to speak positively about the app’s effects. Further, the study spanned only one week. Future research may include longer studies in more natural settings.
Future development of the app
“Our goal is to make the app accessible to a wider audience in the future,” said lead author Chris (Yue) Fu, a UW doctoral student in the school. “We’re exploring the integration of large language models — the systems that power tech like ChatGPT — into our prototype, and we plan to work with content creators to adapt existing socioemotional learning materials into our system. The hope is that these will facilitate more prolonged and effective interventions.”
The “Self-Talk with Superhero Zip” is still a prototype, so was not available to the public at publication. For more information, contact Alexis Hiniker at firstname.lastname@example.org and Christ Fu at email@example.com.