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Children and social robots: An integrative framework

Periodic Reporting for period 3 - CHILDROBOT (Children and social robots: An integrative framework)

Reporting period: 2020-01-01 to 2021-06-30

Robots used to be made for labor; now, they are increasingly also made for social relationships. Social robots can learn from us, teach us, play with us, and assist us. With the market for social robots expected to grow substantially in the next 20 years, social robots are likely to become a life-changing technology similar to personal computers or smart phones. However, we still know little about one of the most intriguing, relevant, and timely issues in this process – children’s interaction with social robots. Children are not only increasingly recognized and targeted as early adopters of new technologies; they may also be more susceptible to potential effects of interacting with robots than are adults.
As research on child-robot interaction (CRI) is still a fragmented field, the main aim of the project is to develop an integrative framework of CRI. This framework synthesizes theories and concepts from communication research, human-robot-interaction, as well as developmental and social psychology in a new way. It focuses (1) on the antecedents of children’s acceptance of social robots; (2) the consequences of CRI for children’s learning of social skills from social robots and their relationship formation with them; and (3) the processes that explain why such effects emerge.
The project combines survey and experimental research, thereby bringing an unprecedented, but much needed multi-methodological approach to the field of CRI. Focusing on 8-9 year-old children, the project will also provide two crucial methodological innovations: (a) the creation an inventory of standardized measures for CRI and (b) new procedures and research designs to study long-term CRI. In its pioneering focus on a disruptive new technology, its theoretically unifying character, and its original methodological contributions, the project will not only help define the field of CRI, but will also present a new agenda for it.
The work in the first half of the project focused on three areas. First, we engaged in theoretical work to substantiate the various subprojects of the project as well as the targeted integrative framework for child-robot interaction (CRI). Second, we prepared, conducted, and analyzed a methodological study in which we tested and validated measures that are central to all subprojects and our subsequent studies. Third, we engaged in extensive preparations of studies in the subprojects. As the project is technologically and methodologically demanding, these preparations included the advancement and programming of research environments, the development of interactions the robot has with children, the design of research routines and protocols, the development of research instruments, as well as the repeated pre-testing and improvement of it all. Given this careful preparation phase, we are now able to collect high-quality data that promise to deliver innovative insights.

In our theoretical work, we systematized and evaluated the research on children and their relationship formation with social robots in terms of trust and closeness with a robot. Moreover, we organized and assessed the literature on children’s acceptance of robots. Our work showed that research on social robots and children tends to produce scattered and often incommensurable results – which once more corroborates the need for an integrative framework that the project aims to achieve. We also dealt with the theoretical foundations for work on children and social robots within communication research, the project’s home discipline. We not only demonstrated how important and timely it is to deal with social robots from a communication perspective, but also how robotic technology underlies important developments in children’s life worlds.
In our methodological work, we showed that valid and reliable self-report measures for children’s interactions with social robots can be advanced. As our theoretical work has demonstrated, valid, reliable, and standardized measurement still presents a challenge in research on children and social robots, which hampers cumulative insights and progress. With the measures we validated, it should be possible for the research community not only to improve measurement in surveys or research that requires self-reported measures, but also to make a step toward more standardized measures and thus more comparable findings.
Within the project’s home discipline, communication science, the interactions between robots and children have received little attention to date. With our work to date, notably our theoretical works, we go beyond the state-of-the art in communication science by showing that social robots challenge many assumptions held for a long time in communication science. Our tests of measures for the study of child-robot interaction put proper measurement center-stage in research on the topic. The measures stimulate standardization in research on child-robot interaction and thereby foster the better comparability of research findings.
With the data currently collected, we expect to understand better how acceptance of robots develops over time and how it is shaped both by the child’s experiences with the robot as well as by the child’s personality and environment. Moreover, we anticipate that we can better explain under which circumstances a social robot stimulates children’s pro-social behavior. Finally, preliminary evidence from our pre-tests suggests that we can get a more nuanced understanding about which communicative features shape children’s relationship formation with a social robot as well as its underlying psychological processes.
Child playing with social robot