EU projects tackle bullying

October 11, 2006

Brussels, 10 Oct 2006

Psychologists and computer scientists from the UK, Portugal and Germany have designed a virtual reality school where children can simulate a bullying situation and learn ways to resolve the problem effectively. Called 'FearNot!', the bullying demonstrator was designed by the now completed VITEC project, and is currently undergoing a longitudinal analysis by project partners in eCIRCUS. Both projects received funds under the Information Society Technologies (IST) programmes of the Fifth and Sixth Framework Programmes.

When the VICTEC/e-CIRCUS team started thinking about what dramatic episodes would take place in the in the FearNot! demonstrator, it was clear that really credible scenarios were needed. Reading the scholarly literature was of little help here as it tended to focus on generic issues like how much bullying there was and whether it involved particular types of personality.

Accounts by people who had been bullied were sought - but these were often too general, describing typical bullying behaviour rather than specific incidents. In the end two sources of information gave the team the scenarios they were looking for. One was theatre, and the insight of scriptwriters into particular incidents, and the other was children's own stories of bullying.

From this feedback, the project partners were able to design a cast of 3D characters including a virtual bully called Luke and his victim. Children follow these characters as they go through various bullying scenarios. At regular intervals, a character in the demonstrator stops to ask the children for advice on what to do next such as ignore the bully, hit back, or tell someone. Children can then follow the next episode to find out the impact of their advice.

Unlike film or cartoons, these characters are driven by an intelligent architecture and are rendered by the computer in real-time: their interactions are not pre-scripted. Equipped with an internal emotional model, these characters can express fear, anger or worry as they interact with each other.

'FearNot! is unique in Europe in using 3D graphical characters for personal and social interaction', says project coordinator Professor Ruth Aylett, from Salford University. 'Most European projects aimed at children rely on websites. However, we don't want the kids to see this as a game, so our characters are expressive - although we have given them a cartoon-like form, rather than making them too naturalistic because psychological studies show that people may find almost naturalistic synthetic characters unnerving. However there is no magic wand to stop bullying and we do not offer one, though we do emphasise the only action everyone agrees on, which is to tell somebody you trust.'

The software is not intended to replace existing education strategies on bullying, but to complement them. The project partners say that its interactive design will give schoolchildren a better grasp of why bullies, victims, and bystanders act the way they do. They say they want children using the system to feel empathy towards the characters involved in a bullying story and to take responsibility for the actions that take place.

Although the FearNot! prototype design was completed and tested by over 1,000 children between the ages eight and twelve by the end of the VICTEC project in 2005, 'we concluded that the product was some way from commercialisation mainly because we didn't have sufficient time to conduct a longitudinal analysis in a school environment: the initial testing took place with children in university laboratories,' says Professor Aylett.

The eCIRCUS project partners plan to continue to expand the range of characters and episodes and improve user interaction. The goal is to take the FearNot! demonstrator into schools by the beginning of 2007.

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