Computer Based Anxiety Treatment for Kids

Anxiety symptoms and severity decreased after four weeks in a small clinical trial

March 30, 2012 / Author:  / Reviewed by: Chris Galloway, M.D.

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(dailyRx News) A computer-based anxiety treatment for children reduced anxiety symptoms after four weeks. This new treatment strategy may be a good fit for children of the digital age.

Using a computer, children with anxiety practiced shifting their attention away from threatening images. After four weeks of training with the computer, anxiety symptoms and severity of symptoms were lowered.

"Don’t wait to get treatment if your child is suffering from anxiety"

A recent clinical trial conducted by researchers at Tel Aviv University, Israel, in conjunction with the University of Maryland and the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) found that children responded well to a computer-based anxiety treatment.

Development of a computer-based treatment could be a cost-effective way to provide treatment to children in a way that they can relate – computer activities.

People with anxiety are known to focus more on threatening images or objects than people who do not suffer from anxiety – known as an attention bias. The attention bias modification (ABM) therapy is designed to help people learn to shift their attention away from threatening objects or events. 

Children with anxiety are more likely to grow up to have problems with anxiety, so early intervention could have long-term benefits.

Children between the ages of eight and 14 years old who were seeking treatment for anxiety were trained on the ABM computer system. The children viewed images of faces on a screen – one angry face, one neutral (no emotion) face.  After the faces disappeared, two dots appeared on the screen. They were asked to decide if the dots were beside each other or one above the other.  In every case, the dots were located where the neutral face had been.

By asking the children to make a judgment about the dots in the location of the neutral face, the therapy helps train the children to shift their attention away from threatening images that are more likely to hold their attention because of the anxiety-induced attention bias.

Some of the children in this study were asked to interact with the computer program to serve as a control group. They were asked to make similar judgments about dots on the screen but were not shown any angry faces.  Children in this second group went through the same general computer exercises for the four weeks, but did not have any training in shifting of attention.

After four weeks, the children training on the ABM had less anxiety symptoms and their remaining symptoms were less severe than before training compared to children in the control group.

The clinical trial was small but the findings were promising.  Larger clinical trials will be aimed at showing exactly how and why the treatment is effective.

The findings of the clinical trial were published in the American Journal of Psychiatry, February 1, 2012.

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Review Date: 
March 29, 2012
Last Updated:
March 30, 2012