Counseling By Avatar


Although people between the ages of 18 and 25 experience symptoms of depression, they do not necessarily seek professional help to get relief.

Those who do seek assistance are likely as not to discontinue treatment prematurely. If they discontinue, depressive behaviors can become depressive habits.

What if avatar (digital) therapists were available; would young adults be more likely to utilize them and follow-through with treatment? A small study suggests the answer is yes, they would use, continue with, and significantly benefit from basic depression treatment via a “professional” avatar.

Even for those of us who did not grow up with computers this is not surprising when you consider the power of our imagination. Stories have taken people to virtual worlds since people drew animals and hunting adventures on cave walls. People have long shared their personal and imaginary worlds through language. Now, we can share worlds digitally.

The Avatar Experiment

  1. Participants, 28 of them, 18 to 25 years old and recruited via posters on city buses, were randomly split into two groups.
  2. The participant’s levels of depression were gauged during four visits over three months.
  3. One group used a computer program to interact with an avatar in a digital primary care setting. The study subjects practiced talking about depression, asked the avatar questions, and were taught skills to manage symptoms of depression.
  4. The second group of participants used electronic screen-based health information about depression.

The young adults who interacted with an avatar had “significant reduction in depressive symptoms over the three-month study, and depressive symptoms dropped below level for clinical significance. The young adults who received electronic screen-based information only had no significant change in depressive symptoms during the study.”

Thinking Ahead

It is easy to imagine a psychotherapist creating an avatar and setting up a comfortable, professional office on the Internet. To see this therapist you would have your own avatar created (or choose to use a generic one) and pay for digital therapy sessions once or twice per week.

If both parties have the right virtual equipment, they could actually meet together inside the digital counseling office. This has its advantages since virtual offices are always clean and theoretically an avatar does not have bad hair days.

For Now

People respond to virtual reality much as if it were brick and mortar reality. If an avatar on a computer app can help young adults manage symptoms of depression it is a blessing and may save some people from a lifetime of depressive symptoms. Other research has shown that untreated depression typically worsens and can become chronic so learning to manage it early is important.

Instead of worrying about being replaced by a programmed holographic image, this counselor believes that virtual reality has a lot to teach us about what it means to be human. We may not like everything discovered, but it will be interesting.

Sources: Science Daily and PBS Digital Nation


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