Last week, the World Health Organization (WHO) released new guidelines about how much physical activity, sleep, and screen time young children should have. The announcement added fuel to what’s already an anxiety-inducing question for many parents: How much time should they allow kids to spend in front of a screen each day? But no matter how you navigate decisions about television, movies, and apps in your own home, experts say there’s one type of screen time you shouldn’t worry about.
“I don’t think people should feel bad about doing video chatting,” says Yolanda Reid Chassiakos, MD, who teaches pediatrics at the University of California, Los Angeles, and was the lead author of a 2016 American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) report on kids and media. The current AAP guidelines say that for kids under 18 months, parents should avoid digital media, but the guidelines make an explicit exception for video chats.
The reason for the exception is that doctors aren’t worried about screens themselves, but about everything kids aren’t doing while they’re looking at screens. For younger children, Reid Chassiakos explains, physical play in the three-dimensional world is crucial for brain development. So is social interaction. When kids are watching a video or tapping an app, these healthier activities get pushed aside.
Georgetown University developmental psychologist Rachel Barr, PhD, says this displacement, which researchers call “technoference,” isn’t as much of a problem with things like Skype and FaceTime because interaction with others is built in to the experience of video chatting. There’s someone on the other side of the screen — and often on the same side, too — engaging with the child.
That engagement seems to help young children learn from video chats in ways they can’t from other media. For example, in a 2014 study, an experimenter taught made-up verbs (like “meeping,” for turning a dial) to toddlers age 24 to 30 months. Some kids saw the demonstrations in person, others saw them over Skype, and a third group watched videos taken from other kids’ Skype sessions. The experimenter in those videos followed the same general script, but wasn’t actually responding to what the viewer did in real time. Toddlers who saw these prerecorded lessons didn’t successfully learn the nonsense words, but toddlers in the other two groups did.
In a similar 2016 study, Lafayette College developmental psychologist Lauren Myers, PhD, and her colleagues used daily sessions of either FaceTime or prerecorded video to teach actions and made-up words to toddlers between 12 and 25 months. After a week, the oldest toddlers in the FaceTime group had learned more words than those watching prerecorded videos.
It’s well-known that young children find it harder to learn from a movie than from a person in the room with them, a phenomenon called the video deficit. But video chatting adds another element: social contingency. That’s the natural back-and-forth between partners in a conversation, like when one person on a Skype call stops talking because they notice the other looking away. Social contingency seems to make video chatting more meaningful for toddlers than regular videos. (In some kids’ TV shows, characters address questions directly to viewers, but the results from prerecorded videos in these studies suggest toddlers don’t buy this.)
Barr says that virtual conversations can also help young children learn to take another person’s point of view. When parents tell a child to hold a toy up to the camera so Grandma can see it better, or to move back from the screen so Daddy can see their whole face, they’re actually giving sophisticated lessons about perspective.
Most importantly, video chat helps kids build relationships. Myers’ 2016 study found that toddlers 17 months and older learned to recognize and prefer the person who was chatting with them — but only with FaceTime, not with prerecorded videos. That matters because maintaining personal connections is the reason for so many FaceTime or Skype calls: A parent might set their baby in front of the laptop camera to check in with a spouse who’s working late, an old friend, or grandparents living far away.
Reid Chassiakos says that in this way, video chat lets parents maintain a virtual village. “It builds a sort of social environment that isn’t physically possible.” She remembers using video chat to keep in touch with relatives in Europe while her own children were young. “When we actually did travel and visit in person, there was already a relationship established,” she says. Video chatting can also be a boon for immigrants, as well as families with parents who are divorced, in the military, or incarcerated.
To get the most out of video chatting with a young child, it’s important that the parent or caretaker participates, too. “This should not be done by the child alone,” Reid Chassiakos says. Another study by Myers showed that kids rely on their “co-viewer” for cues about how to respond to someone on the screen. “Kids get a lot out of looking at the person who they trust, the person who’s next to them,” Myers says.
Myers also suggests finding fun activities to do over video, like reading a book or playing with blocks. “Even in person, you don’t typically sit down with a 2-year-old and they just have a conversation with you,” she says. “A 2-year-old wants to do something with you.” When her first daughter was very young, Myers imitated her own lab experiments by buying toy animals for family members that matched her daughter’s toys, so they could virtually play together.
The same principles can help parents get the most out of other kinds of screen time — including those the AAP and WHO don’t approve of. Watching and talking about a video with your child, or playing with an app together, will make the activity more meaningful than if they do it alone. “Understanding that children need support in all sorts of interactions,” Barr says, “is the key parenting piece.”