What’s going on in the mind of a Skyping baby?

A new study will look at how young children respond to video calls

BABY FACE TIME  Lots of families use video calling to connect with long-distance relatives, but scientists don’t know how babies handle the technology.


It’s hard living far away from family, especially when you have a sweet little toddler whose every action is hilarious and/or adorable. Like many other parents, we use an iPad to close the distance. Every week, we fire up FaceTime and call the grandparents.

During our sessions, Baby V roams around with her turtle, pulls out all the tissues from a Kleenex box and tries to eat the Velcro on her shoes while her dad and I point the camera at her. But sometimes, something on the screen will capture her attention and she’ll tune in.

When my parents point their camera at their fat gray cat, for instance, Baby V snaps to attention. She’ll fetch her own lime green kitty, and howl “yow” at them both. Likewise with the dog. She loves to see the white dog lying on her grandparents’ kitchen floor, tail lazily flapping.

Music can also grab her: Granddaddy whistling or playing the harmonica is good entertainment for a few seconds, at least. But people on screens, even beloved faces that are making the most alluring, sweet noises at her, don’t always entrance Baby V. She is much too busy for that.

For us, these video calls are a way to catch her grandparents up on her latest antics in a way that’s much more gratifying than a simple phone call. They let our far-flung family share moments like Baby V’s first full-body roll, her first few hesitant steps, or her shrieks of delight as we blow bubbles.

But I’ve often wondered just how Baby V experiences these sessions. Does she think that her grandparents are funny little flat things that occasionally make noise? Or does she recognize her grandparents and understand that they are talking to her?

So I was excited when I saw that researchers at Georgetown University are studying how young children interact with video communication technology like Skype, FaceTime and Google Hangouts. We volunteered, and last weekend, two researchers came over and videoed us during one of our FaceTime sessions with my parents. It was fun being a lab rat, as opposed to my usual role of writing about them.

“There’s almost no research that explores how children under age 2 are using video calling at home, yet these are the children who are most likely to benefit from it,” says Elisabeth McClure, a graduate student who is leading the project as part of the Georgetown Early Learning Project. Studies have found that young kids, particularly those who don’t speak yet, don’t get much out of a regular phone conversation. By adding a visual dimension, video calling might be more accessible for young children.

To understand how children interact with video calls, McClure and her colleagues are starting  with step 1 of the scientific method: observation. That’s why the researchers unobtrusively watched our conversation instead of asking us to do anything in particular. Tidbits gleaned from these observations may be used to form more specific questions and ideas about how the technology fits into children’s lives, McClure says.

And those are important questions, because the technology is everywhere. As more and more families spread out, video calling has become a key way to stay in touch. In a preliminary survey, about 90 percent of families with children ages 2 and under use video calling, McClure says. I’m hoping that she and her colleagues will eventually be able to tell us what’s happening in the mind of a Skyping baby.

Fellow parents in the DC metro area can sign up for this study, and others too, through the Georgetown Early Learning Project.

Follow me on Twitter: @lssciencenews

Laura Sanders is the neuroscience writer. She holds a Ph.D. in molecular biology from the University of Southern California.

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