What We Know About Parents Video Chatting With Kids (and What We Don’t)

Can a meaningful father-son bonding moment occur over Skype? The answer is likely a heavily caveated "yes."

by Lauren Razavi
man videocalling his kids

“Teleparenting” is, depending on who you ask, a neologism or a fiction. Can a meaningful father-son bonding moment occur over Skype? The answer is likely a heavily caveated “yes,” but that doesn’t inoculate any would-be respondent from the inevitable follow up: Should it? That’s the tricky query and the one that academics and researchers have struggled to answer even as gadgets and digital services meant to link children with their caretakers have proliferated ad infinitum. It is, in a sense, a more complicated version of the debate over screen time, which, viewed academically, is a matter of countervailing goods. Screens can be helpful, but the wrong kind of help can contribute to social harm.

And so it goes with parental connectivity. All that’s left for the father stuck at the office or in a Milwaukee hotel room to do is the best they can. This is, thankfully, possible without much of a cash outlay or training.

The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends keeping kids away from screens until they cross the digital rubicon at the age of 18 months, but carves out an exception for videochat; the thinking is that the ease and benefits of virtually meeting grandma and grandpa via FaceTime outweigh the downsides of potentially turning your kid into a dopamine-addled digital junkies. Early interactions with the human face on an iPad can actually help young children develop the internet-enabled communication muscles of the future. So, that’s good. But here’s what’s not: The Canadian Pediatric Association statement on screen time:

“The digital landscape is evolving more quickly than research on the effects of screen media on the development, learning, and family life of young children.”

Unpacked, that means that parents are outpacing scientists in their adoption of new technologies. In other words, the AAP may have carved out a logical exception, but not one backed by hard science. That’s not totally fair, but it’s not totally false either. The AAP’s latest policy seems to have been derived based on the results of a 2017 study conducted on young children in Washington D.C. that clearly demonstrated that “children in their second year formed a social connection and learned new content more readily from FaceTime partners than Video partners.” But that study, which went on to demonstrate that children learned more words in videochats than when watching videos, wasn’t based on interaction with parents or people kids knew IRL. It was based on digital friends holding toys that they children also had. Though it’s not unreasonable to think the results might hold for parents, it’s also not a slam dunk.

For logistical reasons, conducting a controlled study of parents interacting with kids over video would be extraordinarily difficult at scale. Putting the matter to bed once and for all will, therefore, take a lot of time. Kind of.

The science is actually very clear in two ways. The first–and this is no minor thing–is that video chats are not likely to hurt young children’s eyes or cause harm through radiation (unless conducted for hours at a time with a phone pressed against an infant’s skull. The second–and this is a major thing–is that Adults benefit from videochats. There’s plenty of research to support the conclusion that interactions based on video are more complete and satisfying for adults that interactions that take place over the phone. That’s why modern offices have so many screens.

Given the benefits of videochat to adults and the dearth of evidence supporting any notion of harm to children, the common sense conclusion is that dad might as well Skype in from the airport Marriott. But that assumes that there are no slippery slopes. There are.

Researcher Eric Rasmussen described the one that screws things up for American parents succinctly when he describes the bulk of that population as “largely media-illiterate.” What does he mean by that? He means that American parents don’t teach their kids good habits, which in turns results in children having unhealthy relationships with screens and devices. Regular video chats, if not handled correctly, can presumably exacerbate that problem.

“If we want to change children’s’ experience with media, we need to teach parents how to implement it appropriately,” Rasmussen says. “Sometimes we have to use media to get anything done as parents, which is just kind of the way life is in 2017. But there are ways to do it intelligently.”

Dr. Michelle Ponti, chair of the Canadian Pediatric Association’s Digital Health Task Force, has taken the time to enumerate them under a helpful mnemonic (Mmmm…):

Minimize: “We ought to aim to generally reduce the amount of time our kids spend with screens.”

Mitigate: “Reduce the risks.” Put another way, err on the side of streaming a PBS special with your kid instead of a Quentin Tarantino flick. But you already knew that.

Mindfulness: “Part of our position statement recommends young families develop a specific media plan…. For example, you can say in your plan, ‘You know what, we’re going to talk to daddy every night at 6 pm via Skype.’”

Modeling: “Kids learn how to relate to technology from their parents, so parents ought to model healthy interactions with screens.”

In other words, video chat works for kids when they understand the context in which the video chat is taking place and when that context has been tailored, by parents, to suit them and create familial norms. Otherwise, video chat is shiny thing for the kid and a selfish digital space for parents.

Used correctly, video chat is a really good last resort. Does it make up for quality time spent together in a room? Of course not. Parents can feel the difference. But they can also use it as a tool to feel close when they’re actually far from home. And that’s for the better as long as it’s not hurting the kid.