Chatbot KIT is helping to improve body image one chat at a time

Our next generation of young people are highly concerned about their body image. In fact, one in three 15-19-year-olds in Australia are “very” or “extremely concerned” (Tiller et al., 2020). Body image concerns are the major risk factor for the development of eating disorders (Culbert et al., 2015), which impact more than one in five young people in Australia (Mitchison et al., 2019). The scary thing is, less than 25 per cent of people seek support for these issues (The Butterfly Foundation, 2015). These statistics were based on our pre-COVID-19 lives so the current situation is even more disturbing, with more people than ever experiencing eating disorder symptoms and needing support.

Owing to COVID-19, we are spending more time online for study, work and leisure, and this includes time on social media. More than 3.6 billion people worldwide use social media (Clement, 2020)! Photo-based activities on social media strongly influence the development of negative body image and can inadvertently promote eating disorder symptoms (Tiggemann et al., 2020). There is also, unfortunately, content on these platforms specifically designed to promote eating disorder behaviours. As a result, social media represents the key battleground to help prevent and intervene in the development of negative body image. It was this realisation I had in 2018 that gave birth to the idea of KIT, the world’s first positive body image “chatbot”.

A chatbot is a computer program that can learn to have human-like conversations using artificial intelligence technology. You have probably conversed with many chatbots in your life on commercial websites and not even realised it! The recognition of the usefulness and importance of chatbots in the mental health field has grown significantly in recent years. Unlike human health professionals, chatbots are available 24 hours per day, seven days a week, to support people in need. Chatbots also allow people to be completely anonymous and represent that “in between” step from deciding to seek help and actually speaking with a health professional.

KIT the chatbot is capable of having conversations of two main types: (1) education-based about the causes of consequences of body image issues and eating disorders, and (2) teaching coping skills or strategies that mental health professionals routinely offer. KIT has also been designed to appeal to two main groups – people seeking help for themselves aged 13 and over, and people seeking support for a loved one. We decided on a minimum age of 13 years to speak with KIT as that is generally when young people can officially sign up for social media accounts.

KIT represents a unique partnership between my team of researchers and health professionals at Monash and Swinburne Universities, our national body image and eating disorder support organisation – Butterfly Foundation, chatbot production company – Proxima, and graphic design company – Yoke. KIT can be accessed via two pathways: (1) Social media advertisements as a Messenger chat and (2) Butterfly’s website as a webchat.

In order to produce the most appealing chatbot, we have involved people with lived experience of body image issues and eating disorders, as well as parents/carers, at every step of the design and development process. We ran several rounds of online focus groups in early to mid-2020 with around 50 people of all genders aged 13+ around Australia who provided us with valuable feedback which allowed us to improve KIT. A big thank you again to everyone who contributed to this feedback process.

We officially launched KIT in November 2020 and have been thrilled with the response from thousands of users throughout Australia. People of all ages (13 through to 70+), genders, cultural backgrounds and sexual orientations have been helped by KIT. KIT’s conversations also include short online surveys which we are using to evaluate how KIT is helping people, and we look forward to bringing you those research results soon.

Already we know that KIT is particularly popular with adolescents and young adults seeking support for themselves, in particular, they have been wanting to learn more coping skills. Here are some of their comments about KIT:

“I found KIT to be responsive to my needs. It is good to have info at my fingertips 24/7.”

“I think it is a great tool to use when you are beginning to really question your self-worth so thank you.”

Owing to the popularity of KIT’s coping skill conversations, we released a collection of brand new coping skills in late February 2021. These skills are mindfulness-based, as mindfulness has been shown to be effective in the treatment of a range of mental health conditions, including eating disorders (Atkinson et al., 2016). The term mindfulness is often used in our daily lives without a clear understanding of what it involves. To be clear, mindfulness is about paying attention to the present moment, on purpose and without judging your experience as good or bad (Baer, 2003). The goal is not to get rid of or fix uncomfortable thoughts or feelings, but to notice them without judgment. This can help give us a bit of space, without feeling so caught up in our thoughts.

We really hope people will benefit from KIT’s new mindfulness skills and encourage you to come #ChatToKit to help us keep improving this world-first positive body image chatbot service!

References

Atkinson MJ, et al. Does mindfulness have potential in eating disorders prevention? A preliminary controlled trial with young adult women. Early Interv Psychiatry. 2016;10(3):234-45.
Baer RA. Mindfulness training as a clinical intervention: A conceptual and empirical review. Clinical Psychology: Science and Practice. 2003;10:125-43.
Clement J. 2020. 2018 Yellow social media report. Melbourne, Australia; 2018. Retrieved from: https://www.statista.com/statistics/278414/number-of-worldwidesocial-networkusers/#:~:text=Social%20media%20usage%20is%20one,almost%204.41%20billion%2 0in%202025.Sensis
Culbert KM, et al. Research Review: What we have learned about the causes of eating disorders – a synthesis of sociocultural, psychological, and biological research. J Child Psychol Psychiatry. 2015;56(11):1141-64.
Mitchison D. DSM-5 full syndrome, other specified, and unspecified eating disorders in Australian adolescents: Prevalence and clinical significance. Psychological Medicine. 2019;50(6):981-990.
The Butterfly Foundation. Investing in need: Cost-effective interventions for eating disorders. Sydney, Australia; 2015
Tiggemann M et al. Uploading your best self: Selfie editing and body dissatisfaction. Body Image; 2020;33:175-82.
Tiller, E et al. 2020, Youth Survey Report 2020, Sydney, NSW: Mission Australia.

 

 

About Dr Gemma Sharp

Dr Gemma Sharp is a National Health and Medical Research Council Early Career Senior Research Fellow at Monash University, Melbourne. She founded and leads the Body Image Research Group at the Monash Alfred Psychiatry Research Centre. She is also a Senior Lecturer and clinical supervisor for postgraduate clinical psychology students at the Monash University Turner Clinics. Furthermore, she runs her own private psychology practice in Melbourne where she specialises in the treatment of body image issues and eating disorders. To keep up to date with Dr Sharp’s developments, you can follow her on Twitter at @gemmasharp11

 

 

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