Using computer mediated role-play to investigate indiscriminate friendliness in children
Fallon, Toni L.
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A breadth of research highlights the benefits of utilising computer technologies in research with children. In middle childhood, social understanding and atypical behaviour patterns are difficult to assess through traditional interviews or questionnaires because many children do not have the verbal sophistication required to complete these accurately. Indiscriminate friendliness (IF) or over-friendliness with strangers can leave children socially vulnerable. Currently, it is assessed qualitatively by clinicians or quantitatively through parent or teacher reports. To increase validity and reliability, we need more quantifiable measures to capture children’s “real world” behaviours. The present research aims to create a more ecologically valid measure of IF using computer mediated role-play, and to disentangle the strongest psychological predictors of IF in middle childhood. I carried out five empirical studies with primary-aged school children (including data from looked after children). They were asked to comprehend novel story vignettes and role-play various characters in a variety of computer scenarios to investigate theory of mind and IF/Disinhibited Social Engagement (DSE). I created bespoke versions of social stories measuring IF comprised of “paper pencil” story vignettes and two matching computer mediated role-play measures. Children also completed story vignettes measuring Theory of Mind (ToM) and a battery of cognitive tests, comprised of IQ, cool and hot executive function (EF). Parents and teachers completed emotional, behavioural and social questionnaires about the children. I found developmental (age) differences in IF. Specifically, 6-year-olds displayed significantly more IF behaviours than either 8 or 10-year olds. I discuss the potential advantages of computer mediated role-play in comparison to “paper pencil” tasks in middle childhood. I also found that ToM and general social cognition are the key predictors of IF and social vulnerability. There was some indication of a relationship with EF tasks, but the most robust predictors were the social cognitive factors. A pilot study of a bespoke computer game revealed the advantages and disadvantages of the software used. This research also highlights the importance of the methodology of computer mediated roleplay for measuring IF in children. This thesis has implications for the way researchers and clinicians measure children's social behaviours. I argue that this research is essential for informing practitioners and policy makers on approaches for early intervention in groups of children who are at risk of becoming socially vulnerable, for example, those in foster care or those with autism spectrum disorders.