US researchers have developed a chatbot that may help reduce the likelihood a person develops an eating disorder.
The bot helped women at a high risk for an eating disorder to reduce their concern over body weight and shape – a factor that contributes to their risk, the Verge reported.
According to Ellen Fitzsimmons-Craft, Assistant Professor of psychiatry at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, digital prevention programmes could be more effective when guided by a human moderator.
The team developed a chatbot that offered “some aspects of moderation in an automated format”, Fitzsimmons-Craft was quoted as saying.
Participants in the study could use the chatbot through texts or through Facebook Messenger.
The study recruited female participants through online ads, fliers, and the national eating disorder association online eating disorder screening test.
Women who did not have an active eating disorder but had risk factors for one, like negative body image or excessive concern about their weight, were randomly assigned to either engage with the chatbot or sit on a waitlist.
The chatbot offered eight conversations about topics around body image and healthy eating, and women who used the bot were encouraged to have two of the conversations each week.
At three- and six-month check-ins, women who talked to the chatbot had a bigger drop in concerns on a survey about their weight and body shape – a major risk factor for developing an eating disorder – than women in the waitlist group, the report said.
The study, published in the International Journal of Eating Disorders, also found some indication that women in the chatbot group were less likely to have developed a clinical eating disorder by the end of the six months than women in the waitlist group.
“This could have a great public health impact if we can continue to find ways to disseminate it widely,” Fitzsimmons-Craft said.
This is one of the first studies testing the effectiveness of chatbots in healthcare, even though they’re widely used in medical settings to assist with everything from Covid-19 symptom screening to therapy, the report said.