Many people have an aversion to spiders. Understandable, considering some eight-legged arthropods can take a painful bite out of humans—and most people can't tell the difference between the ones that do and the ones that don't.
However, some people are scared beyond reason by the creepy critters. In fact, they are terrified by just the sight of them, leaving them panicked and full of anxiety. Known as arachnophobia, this overwhelming fear can be disabling for the estimated five percent of people affected by it.
Now there’s an app for that. Researchers at the University of Basel in Switzerland have developed a smartphone program that uses augmented reality (AR) to help those with the shakes over spiders overcome their suffering. (The researchers state app is designed “for those who suffer from a mild, clinically insignificant fear of spiders who are at least 16 years of age.” People with a severe fear should consult a specialist before using the app.)
Called Phobys, the new app displays a 3-D spider model on the real-world images seen through the user’s smartphone as a form of exposure therapy—a cognitive behavioral treatment designed to ease discomfort through gradual introduction the feared item.
A study published by the researchers in the peer-reviewed Journal of Anxiety Disorders states users exhibited “significantly less fear compared to those in the control group,” reports Margaret Davis of the Science Times.
Using AR, the app projects the image of a spider on to whatever is being viewed through the smartphone’s camera. This enables the person with arachnophobia to gradually face their fear in a safe and controlled manner, reports Amanda Kooser of CNET.
“It’s easier for people with a fear of spiders to face a virtual spider than a real one,” says lead author Anja Zimmer, a PhD candidate at the university’s Division of Cognitive Neuroscience.
Researchers tested the app on 66 patients in a clinical trial lasting two weeks, reports Connie Lin of Fast Company. Some participants used it in six half-hour training sessions while a control group did nothing.
At the end of the trial, all participants were asked to view a live spider in a see-through box to determine how they reacted.
“We report that repeated home-use of the stand-alone, smartphone-based, gamified AR exposure app was effective in the reduction of phobic fear in participants with fear of spiders,” the study states. “Specifically, the app use led to reductions in fear, disgust and avoidance behavior at medium effect sizes when tested in a real-life situation, and to reductions at large effect sizes in questionnaire-based fear measures.”
Phobys can be downloaded from the iPhone and Android app stores. At a cost of $5 to unlock, the app has ten levels of therapy to overcome fear.
Not overwhelmingly scared of spiders, but interested in learning more about the ones you come across? In 2020, a “Shazam” style app for identifying spiders was released. Users simply take a photo of the spider and compare it to images in the app’s database. Certainly not a cure for arachnophobia, but at least a reassuring way of finding out whether you should squash it or not.