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UW Researchers Study Whether Robots Can Be Used To Measure Teens' Stress Levels

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Ashley Gross
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KNKX
Elin Björling showed three robot prototypes that she and her colleagues have developed, with design input from teenagers, as a tool for measuring adolescent stress levels."

Researchers at the University of Washington are gearing up for another year of investigating whether robots can be used to measure stress levels in teens.

In a room at the university decorated with posters of the movie WALL-E, Elin Björling showed one of the robot prototypes, pressing a button to make the robot speak.

“I’m excited to hear about your day. May I ask you a question?” the machine said. “How stressed do you feel right now?”

Björling is a research scientist in the Department of Human Centered Design and Engineering and part of the Project EMAR team. EMAR stands for Ecological Momentary Assessment Robot.

The aim is to find a way to measure teens’ stress levels in the moment rather than after the fact through a questionnaire as many stress surveys are done, Björling said.

She said students have responded well to the robot prototypes, and some didn’t want their interactions with the machines to end.

“A lot of the teens are telling us they don’t have an outlet,” she said. “They really don’t have an outlet – so that’s one easy thing we can do is provide them with a safe and comfortable outlet for them to share stuff.”

Björling said she hopes one day the robots could also be used to help students manage their stress with quick tips for calming techniques.

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Credit Ashley Gross / KNKX
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KNKX
Project EMAR team members (from left to right): Elin Björling, Maya Chakmak and Wendy Xu

She said robots have been shown to help older adults, and offer possibilities for adolescents as well.  

“Shouldn’t we be looking at this as a tool for teenagers?” she said. “They’ve been digitally immersed since the moment they were born. Technology should be working for them, not against them.”

Björling and her colleagues have been getting a lot of design input from teens. She said they seem to prefer simple, boxy designs and perceive more complicated, android-type robots as scary and threatening.

“In some ways, less is more,” she said. “The higher functioning it becomes, the more elaborate it becomes, the more suspicious teens are and the less they want to talk to it.”

Björling said data collected through the robots will be anonymous and aggregated so that teens can speak freely. The idea is to give schools a tool to get a community-wide glimpse of students’ stress levels rather than pinpoint individual students who are struggling, she said.

In July 2017, Ashley Gross became KNKX's youth and education reporter after years of covering the business and labor beat. She joined the station in May 2012 and previously worked five years at WBEZ in Chicago, where she reported on business and the economy. Her work telling the human side of the mortgage crisis garnered awards from the Illinois Associated Press and the Chicago Headline Club. She's also reported for the Alaska Public Radio Network in Anchorage and for Bloomberg News in San Francisco.