Virtual reality treatment for dog phobia in children

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Happy family sitting on couch with their pet yellow labrador in foreground at home in the living room
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Using virtual reality technology to treat children for dog phobia is the aim of a new study at Griffith.

Aimed at children aged 8-12 years, the therapy entails assessments and an intensive three hour treatment whereby participants are exposed to multiple types of dogs wearing a virtual reality headset.

“A fear of dogs is one of the most common phobias among the 10 per cent of children who suffer from them,” says study leader and Masters of Psychology student Taka Miyamoto.

“There are effective treatments for this phobia but unfortunately they can be difficult to deliver for clinicians given that the live stimuli – dogs – are needed.

“Using virtual reality is an innovative alternative treatment for older children who can easily use the technology headsets to be exposed to a range of several different breeds of virtual dog at once.

“This has the advantage of being more accessible and appealing for children with severe dog phobia. There is also the obvious advantage for the clinician with regards to the practicalities of having multiple dogs within the treatment area.”

The dog phobia therapy is a part of a wider Griffith study looking at the efficacy of intensive, time-limited treatment for specific phobias in pre-school children using an efficient one session treatment approach.

Having just been awarded a $570,000 National Health and Medical Research Council grant, the five-year study will investigate the phobias of children aged 3-5 years in a bid to reduce the likelihood of mental health problems in later life.

“The most common phobias among children are phobias of dogs and the dark; however, there are others, such as phobias of high places, loud noises and costume characters,” says Associate Professor Lara Farrell from Griffith’s School of Applied Psychology.

“The long-term research to date has shown that phobias during childhood are the strongest predictor for mental health disorders later on. So if we can treat phobias in childhood, we may be able to prevent other mental health problems later in life.

“Indeed, a very recent ten year prospective longitudinal study concluded that about half of all serious adult mental health disorders (including panic disorder, generalised anxiety disorder [GAD], OCD, PTSD and depression) could be prevented if phobias beginning in the first two decades of life were effectively treated.

“This study represents a critical step towards testing these conclusions experimentally by treating phobias at the first sign of clinical onset during the pre-school years.

“Quite remarkably, phobias can be effectively treated in just a single session; with robust evidence in support of the one-session treatment approach for older youth (7 – 17 years) and adults. However, the one session approach has not yet been tested with preschool aged children.”

Associate Professor Farrell says that the study will follow up the pre-school participants two years following the treatment to see if the development of anxieties and fears can be offset.

“It is when children get older that they may show signs of other anxiety and depression disorders. Our hope is to prevent such problems by targeting childhood phobias in pre-schoolers.”

Interested participants should phone: (07) 5678 8317 or visit: https://www.griffith.edu.au/griffith-health/school-applied-psychology/research/pre-schoolers-overcoming-phobias

(Source: Griffith News)

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Date Created: September 13, 2018