Are social robots the future of child care?

April 19, 2021
A South Korean study showed many parents would be OK with robots taking over certain aspects of child care. (AP Photo/Vincent Yu)

A South Korean study showed many parents would be OK with robots taking over certain aspects of child care. (AP Photo/Vincent Yu)

Autonomous social robots are designed for human communication and interaction, but are humans ready to integrate them into daily life? A South Korean study has revealed that working parents are open to the idea of using social robots in child care functions such as socialization, entertainment and consultation, but they are less interested in using them for educational purposes with their kids.

In a paper published April 5 in the International Journal of Social Robotics, a team of researchers developed a questionnaire for dual-income families in South Korea, asking about their attitudes toward having robots in the home and interacting with their children. By definition, social robots can provide mental and psychological aid to humans by autonomously performing actions such as talking to them, exchanging information and sharing intimate feelings, according to the researchers. "These social robots are physically embodied artificial agents designed to display socially appropriate and meaningful behaviors to interact and communicate naturally with humans," the authors said in their study.

Jae-gil Lee, a researcher at both Sungkyunkwan University, in South Korea, and Pennsylvania State University and a co-author of the paper, told The Academic Times that although prior studies have proved that social robots can be of help to children and their parents, there has been a need for research about what needs and demands exist in the customer base of these robots.

"This paper was about how we can use social robots to solve real-world problems," Lee said. "This is a preliminary project that can guide us to develop social robots in home-environment settings, because at this point, we are still exploring the 'golden rule' that can lead us to the successful adoption of social robots in the home environment."

Writing in the article, the authors explained that social robots have the potential to fully integrate into homes and perform a variety of child care functions, including consulting with children about their concerns, offering them advice, instilling socially desirable behavior, entertaining them with dancing and games, distracting them while parents are preoccupied with other responsibilities, and keeping them on a schedule with homework and chores. 

For the study, Lee and his co-researchers focused on working mothers and fathers who were juggling careers, children and housework and who had concerns that they weren't spending enough time with their children. This demographic could be the core consumers of future social robots designed for the home, Lee said, because those parents are usually looking for effective alternative child care options. 

"Social robots can be designed to bridge the gaps in nurturing that confront dual-income parents to satisfy their parental demands," the authors said in the paper. "These robots can potentially support many parenting functions as well as compensate for the paucity of emotional interaction experiences for children of dual-income parents who find it difficult to focus on childcare."

They first recruited a sample of 624 dual-income families living in South Korea, who were surveyed for their opinions and concerns about home-based social robots to establish their needs from the product. The sample included 351 mothers and 273 fathers with at least one child between 3 and 12 years old.

Based on the feedback the researchers received in the first survey, they identified the parents' top needs and suggested a range of child care support functions that social robots could fill: socialization, education, entertainment and expert counseling. 

The researchers then "examined the presumption that these childcare features can elicit positive responses from parents toward such robots, and compared the relative importance among the parenting-support functions." Attitude is a key predictor for future behavior, Lee explained, so the team sought to find specific child care functions that could make parents' attitudes toward the robots more positive.

A questionnaire developed by the researchers also investigated the parents' preferences for the child care functions based on their different parenting characteristics. They hypothesized that the parents would form a favorable attitude toward social robots based on their expectations of how the robots could perform socialization, educational utility, entertainment, and counseling expertise and advisory functions for their children.

"We gathered their opinions and their concerns, and we developed a questionnaire to address their concerns — to see if a robot can fulfill their needs and [whether] the fulfillment of their needs can contribute to increasing their attitude towards the robots," Lee said.

Overall, the parents' attitudes toward the idea of robots were made more positive by the socialization, entertainment and expert counseling child care functions, though parents' expectations of child care functions did vary based on parenting characteristics. The more positive a parent felt toward robots, the more likely they were to report that they wanted more information about them and their role in the home. 

Lee noted that the study's most interesting result was that parents generally do not want social robots to provide education to their children. This is surprising, given how frequently children today use digital media to learn, Lee said. And there has also been a great deal of previous literature introducing social robots based on their potential for education-related features. 

"Perhaps there are so many other types of educational content, other than social robots, that parents want social robots to perform other functions," Lee said. "We concluded that simply providing educational content through our social robots may not be an ideal solution for working parents, because there are so many other alternative ways to provide educational content."

Even though social robot products have the potential and capacity to teach, Lee suggested that the industry needs to use consumer feedback in their development and consider that social robots may be better received in a home-management role. Instead of directly providing educational content like teachers or parents, robots could monitor the kids' study progress, work with them as study partners or encourage them to finish their homework.

The authors said in the paper that social robots can record unusual behavior displayed by children for expert reference, acting as a tool to collect behavioral data that parents can use for professional advice. Parents in the sample responded positively to this recording function. 

The study additionally found that parents of middle-childhood children, who are 8-12 years old, were predicted to have a more favorable attitude toward robots based on their capacity for entertainment. And parents who had only one child were more inclined than those who had multiple children to be interested in the robots for entertainment purposes. Parents were also consistently motivated to use robots to improve their children's social skills, regardless of their parenting styles.

"Family-oriented parents spent sufficient time on household chores and only demonstrated interest in the social interaction skills of robots that would help to improve the interpersonal skills and ameliorate the socialization of their children," the authors said in the paper. "Work-oriented parents were found to actively utilize alternative parenting methods to minimize [child care] gaps, and this parenting characteristic is typical of dual-income parents."

Parents considered to be noninterfering reported looking forward to the professional counseling functions of robots for their children, to better understand their kids' behaviors. And those considered dominant anticipated the entertainment features of robots to engage their children while the parents accomplished other chores.

"The results of the present study will help developers and business practitioners of [child care] robots to strategically design and introduce their robots to their target consumer groups," the authors said.

Lee and his co-researchers recommend that future research regarding social robots be expanded to other countries and cultures beyond South Korea to identify any differences in what parents want or need from the product. 

"South Korea is a collectivist culture, whereas the U.S. and European countries are individualistic cultures. So they pursue different values in their life," Lee said. "However, when it comes to parenting, parents in individualistic cultures do teach their children about some [collectivistic] values, like the value of community and other things. The opposite is also true: that some parents in collectivist cultures also emphasize individualistic values — for example, self-achievements."

Because of this, Lee theorizes that results from other countries would yield similar results. The authors also think studies of parents already using social robots in the home would be beneficial to the industry.

The study, "Can robots help working parents with childcare? Optimizing childcare functions for different parenting characteristics," published April 5 in the International Journal of Social Robotics, was authored by Jieon Lee and Daeho Lee, Sungkyunkwan University; and Jae-gil Lee, Sungkyunkwan University and Pennsylvania State University.

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