During Skype sessions, my kids love to tell their grandparents in upstate New York about new projects at school, demonstrate cartwheels, and hold up squirming bugs captured from the backyard. Like us, many families with distant relatives or traveling parents take advantage of live video chats, but how does that time in front of a screen affect young children?
Since 1999, the American Academy of Pediatrics has discouraged exposure to screens for infants and children under 2 years of age — no cartoons, no video games, nada. But with new technologies constantly emerging, it can be hard to know where to draw the line with young kids, especially with useful tools such as video chat.
Now, a new analysis finds that toddlers can learn new words, patterns, and social cues — such as recognizing and preferring a grandparent, even if they've never met in person — from video chats but not from prerecorded videos like those on television or YouTube.
"Video chat can support learning and social bonding across distance with loved ones," says study leader Lauren Myers, a developmental psychologist at Lafayette College in Easton, Pa. It is still no replacement for human-to-human interactions, she emphasizes. "In-person experiences trump electronic experiences hands down."
Children under the age of 2 do not learn as well watching screens than having live experiences, but Myers wondered if back-and-forth interactions might enable onscreen learning. She and her research assistants evaluated 60 children, ages 1 to 2, during two types of video interactions: Half the children watched a week of prerecorded videos and the other half participated in a week of real-time FaceTime conversations. Content of all the videos was similar: The children were given toys, and an onscreen adult taught each child the names of the toys and demonstrated how to use them.
After a week, both groups of children attention to and responded to their on-screen partner equally, but toddlers interacting with a live partner were more likely to respond at appropriate times, such as clapping after their partner clapped. The prerecorded videos often led the toddlers and their partners to miss each other's cues — such as not responding quickly enough to prompts like clapping, for example.
In children approaching age 2, the back-and-forth interaction with a person on video chat did facilitate learning new words and patterns. Such learning did not occur with children younger than 22 months or with the children of any age watching prerecorded videos.
The video chats had another added benefit: Starting at 17 months, children with live interactions more often recognized and preferred their screen partner over a stranger at the end of the study when they met in person. Children in the prerecorded group showed no recognition of or preference for their on-screen partner over a stranger.
That's good news for parents or grandparents who hope to form or maintain bonds with their little ones from afar. In a recent article, American Academy of Pediatrics leaders seemed to loosen their screen time recommendations, stating: "The more media engender live interactions, the more educational value they may hold." The organization did clarify that statement by saying, "Optimal educational media opportunities begin after age 2." The AAP is expected to update their official media use guidelines later this year.