This is meaningful for a few reasons, not least of which is cultural. Extended families are increasingly spread across greater geographic distances. Video calls are how many babies first meet their grandparents, their aunts and uncles, and other people who love them. Video-chat technologies, then, have major implications for how humans perceive key relationships.
While interfaces like Skype, FaceTime, and Google Hangout are still relatively new, this area of research builds on decades of experiments involving children and electronic screens. Researchers have long studied how passive television viewing affects young children, and how well children can learn from watching educational programming, but scientists are only just beginning to figure out how babies understand screen interactions with another person in real time.
Michael Rich, the director of the Center on Media and Child Health and a pediatrics professor at Harvard Medical School, said that the latest findings help illustrate how the concept of “screen time” is too broad. “Given the plethora of screens and uses for those screens that we have now, I think that we have to be a little sanguine about how much we can extrapolate,” he said.
Of course, babies being babies, it’s hard to know what they’re thinking just by watching how they act. “Just because they stare at a screen doesn’t mean they are interpreting it, decoding it, understanding it,” Rich said. “Can a baby decode the pattern of light and dark on a two-dimensional object as a symbol of Grandma’s face, and perceive that the noise they hear is generated by Grandma talking to them?”
Back at Georgetown, McClure and her team conducted a survey across Washington, D.C., asking parents of infants and toddlers how many of them had ever participated in a video chat like FaceTime. “Eighty-five percent of the families that we surveyed who have babies under 2 said they had ever used it,” McClure said. “And almost 40 percent said they used it once a week. Not only are they using [this technology], but they use it a lot.”
And not only that—these chats were surprisingly long, often lasting for 20 minutes or more. And many parents of young children reported using video chat with their kids even though the kids weren’t allowed to watch television. “Even families who avoid video exposure,” McClure said, “they make an exception for video chat.”
As a doctoral student, McClure spent much of her time observing families with their babies during these video calls. In particular, she wanted to assess how they coped with the limitations of streaming video chat, which can be glitchy and inconsistent. Even when the conversations are technologically flawless, the format itself disrupts many of the cues that help babies understand what’s going on in a face-to-face interaction. “Babies are very sensitive to eye contact, physical contact, pointing at things, and all of those can be compromised,” McClure said.