Does Video Chatting Help or Harm Babies and Toddlers?
“Want to talk to Grandma and Grandpa?” Joyce asked, settling her 9-month-old son and three-year-old daughter in front of her computer. On the screen, her parents smiled and waved, as their grandchildren laughed and waved back.
Video chatting is such a great way to keep the family connected, Joyce thought. Especially given that Mom and Dad live over five hundred miles away.
But wait, didn’t she just read a news report saying that children spent far too much time in front of computers and TV screens? And didn’t they say all that screen time hurt children’s development?
It turns out Joyce is both right and wrong about screen time. The key is whether children can interact in real-time with the images they see on the screen. Here’s why.
The Positive Impact of Interactive Screen Time
One of the most critical developmental goals during a child’s first few years of life is establishing and maintaining a healthy emotional attachment to caregivers. Today, so many families are spread out geographically that maintaining essential relationships with extended family members and friends in person can be challenging. But ample scientific evidence shows that toddlers and preschoolers are comforted by the virtual presence of people with whom they have an emotional attachment. Virtual interactions with familiar people also greatly benefit cognitive development because toddlers learn new words and concepts while interacting with friends and family members.
A recent study clearly showed the enormous benefits of video chatting with children. The study involved 30 children under the age of two years (29 girls and 31 boys). The toddlers either participated in real-time video chat conversations (FaceTime condition) or watched pre-recorded videos (Video condition) in which they watched an adult say and do the same things that were said and done by adults in the FaceTime condition. The researchers measured how well the children remembered things said during the videos. They also measured how well “synced” the children were with the person in the videos. For example, if the person waved at the child, did the child wave back? If the person modeled a novel action, did the child try to imitate that action?
The most striking result from this study was that the toddlers easily formed social relationships and learned new content from their FaceTime partners, but not their Video partners. It turns out that the social contingency of video chatting matters, that is, that the person in the video and the child respond to each other in real-time.
A growing body of evidence shows that this kind of social contingency in video chatting better enables young children to respond to, understand, learn and remember video content. Even infants as young as three months are sensitive to social contingency between their behavior and responses from video partners.
The Negative Impact of Non-Interactive Screen Time
It has been repeatedly shown that children under 2 years of age exhibit a video deficit, that is, they learn less well from video than from equivalent live experiences. This is true for a wide variety of measures, including imitation, emotional responses, object retrieval, speech perception, and language learning.
Scientific testing of educational videos that involve non-interactive video content (such as those claiming to help very young children learn words or numbers) repeatedly shows little learning from such videos and better learning from caregivers. The difference, again, is that children require interactions with other people in order to develop proper cognitive, emotional, and social skills.
Despite this, American children spend an enormous number of hours daily watching TV and videos. Children under the age of two have been found to spend an average of 53 minutes per day watching television or other non-interactive screen content. By the age of four, children spend an average of two and a half hours on screen time. From age five to eight, they spend an average of three hours daily this way.
The good news is that this “video deficit” can be erased by switching from non-interactive to interactive video activities. In fact, the American Academy of Pediatrics recently decided that “Facetime doesn’t count”, that is, “video chat is an exception to recommended media restrictions for infants and toddlers.”
Video Chatting Benefits Grandparents and Extended Family as Well
Video chatting turned out to be a boon for grandparents during the COVID-19 lockdown. The American Association of Retired Persons reported that 71 percent of grandparents of children ages birth to 5 years old increased their reliance on video chatting to stay connected with their grandchildren during the Covid-19 lockdown.
Even after the lockdown lifted, grandparents who continued to use video chat reported feeling emotionally more connected to their grandchildren, particularly those who were further away geographically. It turns out that the length of the chat doesn’t matter as much as their frequency. Sixty-eight percent of grandparents who use video chatting say their calls last less than 30 minutes on average.
Ways to Ensure Your Child Benefits From Video Chatting
Experts offer the following useful tips to make the most of video chatting with young children:
Tips for the parents of the child video chatting with a partner:
Choose a good time of day.
Avoid times when children are hungry or restless.
Help your child adjust.
Repeat questions raised by their video partners or point out things your child can see and identify.
Have materials at your side to show the video partner.
These can include your child’s current favorite storybook or your child’s latest artwork.
Tips for adults chatting with young children:
Look at the camera.
Most people end up staring at their own image on the screen way, so avoid this. It is really important to make eye contact when you look at the camera.
Keep very young children engaged with you by playing ‘peek a boo’.
Turn the camera away from you, then back to your face. Surprise them with a funny face or by suddenly showing them a book or toy.
Make sure to use the same greeting each time and in the same tone of voice.
This is especially important when chatting with infants and toddlers.
Use a lot of gestures.
Position yourself so that the child can see your hands, and use them while you talk to them. Feel free to move around so that you don’t appear to be a talking head.
Video chatting with young children is a great way to stay emotionally and socially connected. So, chat away!