Robot dogs can help with pandemic loneliness

Therapy with robot dogs more feasible than real pets for some in isolation

CHIBA, JAPAN - OCTOBER 15:  A Sony Corp. Aibo robotic dog is demonstrated during the Ceatec Japan 2019 consumer electronics show on October 15, 2019 in Chiba, Japan. The Ceatec, an information technology and electronics trade show, displaying latest technologies runs from October 15 to 19. (Photo by Tomohiro Ohsumi/Getty Images)
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Robot dogs could be just as effective as real pets in reducing loneliness and helping vulnerable people in pandemic lockdowns, two studies have suggested.

The studies found robotic seals – but not real-life budgies – could also help people who are tackling pandemic hardships.

At the start of the pandemic, more than 1.5 million people in the UK were ordered to isolate themselves for at least 12 weeks.

A possible consequence of protecting vulnerable people through social-distancing restrictions is social isolation and loneliness.

The University of Cambridge's school of medicine carried out a systematic review of existing evidence from before the pandemic and found therapies such as robot animals helped to reduce loneliness.

SHANGHAI, CHINA - JUNE 13:  Robot dogs are on display during the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) Asia at Shanghai New International Expo Centre on June 13, 2018 in Shanghai, China. 2018 CES Asia will rum from June 13 to 15 in Shanghai.  (Photo by Visual China Group via Getty Images/Visual China Group via Getty Images)

Researchers identified 58 studies of interventions to reduce social isolation and loneliness, which could be adapted for people living in pandemic isolation.

"Lockdown and social-distancing measures have meant that many people have little or no contact with others, which can lead to loneliness and isolation," research team leader Dr Christopher Williams said.

"We carried out our review to try to identify approaches that might help people to cope with these challenging times.

"Although the individual studies took place before the pandemic, we've identified several that would still be feasible even with social-distancing measures in place."

Therapy with robotic dogs would be more feasible for some groups living in pandemic conditions than real dogs, according to the research published in Plos One.

Robotic animals gave better results than a scheme that involved interacting with live budgerigars, the team found.

Other useful techniques include tai chi, laughter therapy, art appreciation, reminiscence therapy, video gaming and indoor gardening.

There are also lessons on friendship, video conferencing and getting to know the neighbours.

"Many of these activities, such as mindfulness, meditation and talking therapies, could be delivered at a large scale in online groups, potentially at low cost," said Dr Adam Townson from Cambridge.

"A significant problem, however, is that those who are most likely to be lonely or isolated, and most in need of support, may not own or know how to use electronic devices, and might not have access to a high-speed internet connection.

"Any approach to help people suffering from loneliness or social isolation must take digital exclusion into consideration."

The research was supported by the National Institute for Health Research.

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