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Virtual Family Time: How Families Connect via Video Chat

Dec 5, 2020

Rachel Barr, Olivia Blanchfield, Georgetown University; Elisabeth McClure LEGO Foundation Billund, Denmark; Ellen Roche, Georgetown University; Jennifer M. Zosh, Pennsylvania State University at Brandywine; Gabrielle A. Strouse, University of South Dakota; Georgene L. Troseth, Vanderbilt University; and Lauren J. Myers, Lafayette College

Published on December 17, 2020


More than a decade of research on how young children learn and connect via video chat takes on new importance as families and educators navigate relationship-building and learning during the pandemic. In this brief review, the authors summarize findings on how babies, toddlers, and their families have used video chat successfully to connect and learn, offering practical tips for parents, distant family members, and educators to connect with young children via video chat during the pandemic and beyond.

Video chat opens up new opportunities for learning and connection for children from birth to 3 years old. Unlike watching television or recorded videos, during video chat the person on the screen can see, hear, and react to a child in real time. Recent research on video chat with young children takes on new importance during the COVID-19 pandemic, which has upended young children’s routines and disrupted their in-person relationships with grandparents, extended family, caregivers, educators, and peers. As families and educators adjust to the pandemic, they may be wondering: Are babies and toddlers interested and engaged during video chat? Do they understand that the people and events they see on video chat are real? Can they recognize a person they meet as the same person who was “in the computer?” Can they learn new things from a person on video chat? Can video chat help young children maintain important relationships with people they don’t see frequently in person? These are the very questions that researchers continue to investigate. In this brief review, we describe the most recent video chat research with young children and provide practical tips for how to make video chat valuable and meaningful for them.

Video chat differs from other types of media exposure (e.g., television or digital games) in its content, supportive context, and focus on the individual child—what Guernsey (2012) called the “Three Cs.” In terms of content, video chat provides a unique opportunity to interact sensitively with a child through their screen, in a way similar to an in-person interaction. Different from a TV program, the content of the video chat can be tailored to each individual child, adapting specially for the child’s age, specific interests, and cognitive development (especially memory development). Finally, the context for using video chat with young children differs from using other media, in that it requires joint media engagement (Stevens & Penuel, 2010) from supportive adults (that is, shared focus on the activity of using media), whether watching with the child or talking to the child from the screen.

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