– CBT virtual reality will revolutionize the treatment of social anxiety for children

07 July 2022

In collaboration with Sheffield Children’s NHS Trust, researchers from Sheffield Hallam University have developed tailor-made VR for the home to target social anxiety disorders.

Sheffield Hallam University has been awarded £35,000 to develop immersive virtual reality (VR) scenarios to alleviate symptoms in children.

The tailored virtual interactions will be tailored for pediatric patients with social anxiety in collaboration with Sheffield Children’s NHS Foundation Trust staff and patients. Scenarios include everyday environments, such as the home, neighborhoods, and shops. These environments will be designed with cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) in mind to provide challenging functions to encourage coping mechanisms.

Social Anxiety Disorder is a long-lasting and overwhelming fear of social situations, affecting approximately 10 percent of children and young people. Children with SAD suffer from stress, anxiety, avoidance of social activities, poor school attendance and problems with concentration, sleep and nutrition. They can have uncontrollable outbursts, negative thoughts, and physical symptoms that lead to depression.

The Covid-19 pandemic has likely increased the symptoms of SAD in schoolchildren. Early intervention is key to minimizing the need for high-intensity therapy and medication, and the condition is more difficult to reverse as they get older.

The home-based technology will also help address the challenges around waiting times, capacity and accessibility of the SAD clinic, which have also been exacerbated by the pandemic.

With traditional SAD treatment, a patient is given 12 to 15 weekly one-hour sessions, which include gradual exposure and prevention. Using VR at home allows the interactive aspects of therapy to be accessed daily rather than weekly and reduces the number of face-to-face sessions to four. This would allow the NHS to increase capacity for the number of children being treated for SAD.

Ivan Phelan, lead researcher at Sheffield Hallam University and director of Impact VR said: “Therapists have seen the value of virtual reality for treating social anxiety disorder but have discovered that it is only for adults.

“There is currently no system available that uses immersive VR to deliver CBT to pediatric patients suffering from SAD at home. We are eager to address this unmet need and have started working with children and psychiatrists to develop an innovative system for children suffering from social anxiety disorders.”

Professor Paul Dimitri, Honorary Professor of Child Health at Sheffield Hallam University and Director of Research & Innovation and Consultant Pediatric Endocrinologist at Sheffield Children’s NHS Foundation Trust, said: “Technology is changing the way we provide healthcare to children and young people. Virtual reality offers the ability to treat mental and physical health problems early in life in the home environment, meaning less hospital time and more time for educational and social activities.

“This groundbreaking research to develop a new way to treat SAD in young people is likely to be more compelling and will revolutionize and accelerate the ability for healthcare professionals to deliver this much-needed care as mental health health problems such as SAD have increased.”

The project, funded by a Confidence in Concept grant from the Medical Research Council, is the first of its kind to explore the use of VR for SAD in children.

The Sheffield Hallam Impact VR research team has previously developed and implemented immersive VR scenarios, with activities such as climbing, cooking and archery, to support the physiotherapy and rehabilitation of adult amputees, burn patients and children with upper and lower limb injuries.


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