A Smart Toy Intervention to Promote Emotion Regulation in Middle Childhood: Feasibility Study

JMIR Ment Health. 2019 Aug 5;6(8):e14029. doi: 10.2196/14029.


Background: A common challenge with existing psycho-social prevention interventions for children is the lack of effective, engaging, and scalable delivery mechanisms, especially beyond in-person therapeutic or school-based contexts. Although digital technology has the potential to address these issues, existing research on technology-enabled interventions for families remains limited. This paper focuses on emotion regulation (ER) as an example of a core protective factor that is commonly targeted by prevention interventions.

Objective: The aim of this pilot study was to provide an initial validation of the logic model and feasibility of in situ deployment for a new technology-enabled intervention, designed to support children's in-the-moment ER efforts. The novelty of the proposed approach relies on delivering the intervention through an interactive object (a smart toy) sent home with the child, without any prior training necessary for either the child or their carer. This study examined (1) engagement and acceptability of the toy in the homes during 1-week deployments, and (2) qualitative indicators of ER effects, as reported by parents and children. In total, 10 families (altogether 11 children aged 6-10 years) were recruited from 3 predominantly underprivileged communities in the United Kingdom, as low SES populations have been shown to be particularly at risk for less developed ER competencies. Children were given the prototype, a discovery book, and a simple digital camera to keep at home for 7 to 8 days. Data were gathered through a number of channels: (1) semistructured interviews with parents and children prior to and right after the deployment, (2) photos children took during the deployment, and (3) touch interactions automatically logged by the prototype throughout the deployment.

Results: Across all families, parents and children reported that the smart toy was incorporated into the children's ER practices and engaged with naturally in moments the children wanted to relax or calm down. Data suggested that the children interacted with the toy throughout the deployment, found the experience enjoyable, and all requested to keep the toy longer. Children's emotional connection to the toy appears to have driven this strong engagement. Parents reported satisfaction with and acceptability of the toy.

Conclusions: This is the first known study on the use of technology-enabled intervention delivery to support ER in situ. The strong engagement, incorporation into children's ER practices, and qualitative indications of effects are promising. Further efficacy research is needed to extend these indicative data by examining the psychological efficacy of the proposed intervention. More broadly, our findings argue for the potential of a technology-enabled shift in how future prevention interventions are designed and delivered: empowering children and parents through child-led, situated interventions, where participants learn through actionable support directly within family life, as opposed to didactic in-person workshops and a subsequent skills application.

Keywords: children; emotional adjustment; families; mental health; stress, psychological.