When it comes to babies and young children, all screen times are not equal.
While the American Academy of Pediatrics has discouraged parents and caregivers from exposing infants and toddlers to screens, a new study in the journal Child Development suggests a potential exception: family video calls.
Georgetown University researchers found babies and toddlers displayed key early attention skills during video calls with family. The researchers tracked “joint visual attention,” the ability to follow someone else’s gaze to what they are looking at. It’s a key developmental milestone, and early strength in joint attention has been linked with language development, make-believe play, and understanding another person’s perspective.
It’s also more difficult to pull off on a video call because cameras on the phone or computer are mounted to one side of the screen, making it difficult to make eye contact directly or correctly point to an object on the other side of the camera.
That hasn’t stopped video calls from becoming popular for parents connecting with remote relatives. In a previous study, co-authors Elisabeth McClure and Rachael Barr had found that among middle-class families, more than 4 out of 5 parents said their infants and toddlers had used video conferencing, and more than a third of them used it every week. By contrast, less than 30 percent of the families had allowed their infants or toddlers to watch online videos or shows. The overwhelming majority of those children interacted with their parent and grandparents or other relatives during the video calls.
McClure, Barr, and their colleagues observed in-home video calls of 25 families with young children ages 6 months to 2 years. All of the families used video calls frequently, at least once a month and often weekly. The studied calls averaged about 20 minutes each and included direct conversations as well as time in which the long-distance grandmothers and grandfathers watched their grandchildren play, moving into and out of the video frame.
The researchers found the children paid attention for about 40 percent of the time; and 60 percent to 80 percent of the time, grandparents and grandchildren were able to follow one another’s gaze. Both their parents and grandparents tended to interact with the children closely, such as pointing to toys in front of them and asking them questions. In particular, the researchers noted that some of the toddlers picked the camera up to show their grandparent other items in the room rather than simply pointing—showing the children understood the grandparent’s perspective.
Considering this is a small group of families, why is all of this interesting? Well, prior studies have found that young children often pay less attention to lessons on recorded videos than those delivered in person, and they don’t perform as well at tasks that ask them to take another’s perspective (such as knowing whether another person can see a hidden toy) if the toy is hidden on a recorded video. Experiments like this suggest that “live feed” video, particularly with someone close to them, may still help young children develop key attention skills.
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A version of this news article first appeared in the Inside School Research blog.