Technology trends

Virtual healing

Many clubs and leisure centres offer swimming lessons for children – but what happens when they’re scared of the pool? Tom Walker finds out about a Swedish project that set out to turn 4,000 water-fearing children into swimmers

lympic champion swimmer Adam Peaty, who broke his own world record en route to gold in the 100m breaststroke final in last year’s Rio Olympics, doesn’t exactly come across as someone who’s scared of water. Yet, following his remarkable victory, it was revealed that as a child he was so petrified of water that his mum, Caroline, even struggled to bathe him.

“He used to scream every time he got in the bath,” Peaty’s grandmother, Mavis, revealed on morning TV a day after his success in Rio. “When his mum took him to the pool to learn to swim, he used to scream there too – so she had to ask a friend to take him, because it broke her heart to see him like that.”

It’s clear that, as a child, Peaty probably belonged to the two per cent of people estimated to suffer from aquaphobia – an irrational fear of water. 

The condition is particularly harmful for children, as it can prevent them from learning a skill that at the very least has the potential to keep them fit and healthy throughout life – and which, for some, could one day prove life-saving.

Last summer, the Swedish branch of energy provider E.ON recognised this and decided to act. “One in five Swedish children can’t swim, and a fear of water is one of the prime reasons,” says Karin Rosell, head of brand and marketing for E.ON’s Swedish operations. “For a land which is full of lakes and surrounded by sea, that’s one in five too many. As we’re one of the main sponsors of the Swedish Swimming Federation (SSF), it’s a topic close to us and we wanted to do something about it.”

After some research and a brainstorming session – together with its creative agency, M&C Saatchi – E.ON wanted to concentrate on the children who couldn’t swim due to their fear of water. The team at M&C then suggested the use of virtual reality (VR) to help get these children more comfortable with the idea of water. Called The Power of Swimming, the project aimed to help children clear that crucial first hurdle – getting into the pool.

To help children overcome their fears, E.ON and Saatchi set out to produce a video to convince them that swimming was a fun and safe activity and there was nothing to worry about. 

Through E.ON’s sponsorship agreement with the SSF, the project team was able to gain access to a rare resource: famous faces. Three of Sweden’s most successful swimmers – Simon Sjödin, Erik Persson and Jennie Johansson – were recruited, with the video produced using VR cameras in which the trio virtually guided the viewer into the pool. Once in the pool, the swimmers coached the viewer on breathing and basic swimming techniques – and even encouraged them to plunge beneath the surface.

The footage was made available for all iPhone or Android devices, viewable using a special headset into which the user could slot their smartphone, along with earphones. E.ON, which funded the entire project, made 4,000 free headsets available to be distributed to children.

To raise awareness of the availability of the headsets, Saatchi also produced a promotional video. In it, a group of young children – all with a fear of water – shared their stories, explaining how they had suffered due to their phobia. “It makes me sad when my friends go swimming but I can’t,” said one.

The video then demonstrated the power of VR, with each aquaphobic child sitting down to try on the headset and view the footage involving the three Olympic stars. The change seemed to happen immediately, as the children got to ‘experience’ a swimming pool – in virtual form – for the very first time. After initial hesitations, it’s obvious that each child warms to the idea, and by the end of the video it seems they can’t wait to try the real thing. 

An opportunity to do just that is then offered to them, as after their VR experience, the children get to meet the three swimmers in a real pool – and the results which follow are amazing as they take to the water.  

The project was well received, not just by parents but also by experts in the field. Swedish psychologist Philip Lindner, from the University of Stockholm, has studied and used virtual reality in treating a number of phobias, and says: “The best way to rid oneself of fear and phobia is controlled, graded exposure to the thing that makes you scared – be it water, spiders, thunderstorms or whatever – and remaining in the fearful situation until the fear has subsided, so you learn that the fear will always subside and that it wasn’t as bad as you thought.

“In traditional exposure therapy, we use real water, dogs and so on. VR exposure therapy works according to the same principle, but we use virtual water and virtual spiders instead. As it turns out, it doesn’t matter if the fear-provoking stimulus is virtual or real – as long as the experience of fear is.

“VR also allows us to do a lot of things that can’t be done in the real world. For example, at Stockholm University, we’ve recently developed a gamified self-help application to treat spider phobia that anyone can download from a digital store. The preliminary results show that it does indeed make people significantly less scared of spiders. This is pretty amazing considering that it only takes three hours to complete, there’s no therapist, and it runs on an £80 VR headset.”

Whether any of the 4,000 children given the opportunity to rid their fear of water will follow in the wake of Adam Peaty to the Olympic podium remains to be seen – but there is no doubt that this pioneering project will have changed many lives for the better.

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