Stephanie Africk, a mother of four, was peddling away on her stationary bike last year while her 2-year-old daughter played on a screen behind her — out of her field of vision.
Wouldn’t it be great, Africk thought, if someone could supervise her virtually while I exercise? She tucked the idea away for months, until the coronavirus cooped up families in their homes. Working parents, kids in need of distraction: It all lined up.
In April, she and her husband, Michael, launched SitterStream from their Brookline home.
An on-demand virtual babysitting service, SitterStream connects children with verified babysitters for 30 to 60-minute FaceTime and Zoom calls. The sitters pre-plan activities for the session based on the kids’ interests.
“It’s taken out all the stress of having a babysitter,” Africk said. “It’s for those mini-moments when you have to take a work call, do housework, or just need a break.”
In one meeting, a sitter helped an elementary schooler make “dinosaur feet” out of old tissue boxes. In another, a Harvard University scientist conducted a home-friendly experiment through the screen. A 3-year-old attentively listened to a sitter read a story in a third call.
Less than a month in, Sitterstream has hosted hundreds of sessions using 48 babysitters from round the world. Almost all first-time users have scheduled a second session, said Africk.
While appealing, online babysitting has its limitations. Financially, it’s out of reach for many families. Thirty-minute sessions through SitterStream are priced at $15 dollars, and 60-minute sessions are $22. A $19.99/month membership fee reduces the session price ($13 for 30 minutes, $20 for 60). Multiple children can be on the call at once for no added charge.
Online babysitting may also not be a great fit for parents of very young kids who are likely to toddle away from the online activities — and off camera. And no virtual service can replace the security of having a babysitter on hand in an emergency. (Parents are, of course, required to be in the house while using SitterStream.)
Still, for families in need of a brief respite, it could make sense. Parents sign up for a session through an online form on the website, thesitterstream.com. It asks for kids’ names, ages, and hobbies, as well as the intended time of the meeting. Sitters only need to be scheduled at least one hour in advance.
To ensure kids are prepped with the materials before each session, sitters text parents with details after confirming the meeting.
Each sitter sits through weekly training sessions led by Africk, a former Pre-K teacher. There, they learn how to greet the child and parent when logging on, how to keep kids active through the screen, and more. The new hires — some of whom are occupational therapists, teachers, and speech pathologists — are vetted by the background check screening company, CrossChq.
“Parents don’t have to worry about finding or crediting the sitters,” said Africk. “We do all the magic.”
Online babysitting services through Care.com and other companies have surged in popularity as the country shelters-in-place. But SitterStream’s founders said the flexibility of its business model is in tune with the needs of parents past this crisis. A Sitterstream app is also in the works.
“You can’t call a babysitter for just 30 minutes in-person,” Africk said. “There are so many small instances in the day when you need to get things done, and Sitterstream is useful then.”
Diti Kohli can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter at @ditikohli_