Latest Issue of Science News

Growth Curve

The inexact science
of raising kids
Laura Sanders

Growth Curve

Growth Curve

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.

Sponsor Message

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

Note: To comment, Science News subscribing members must now establish a separate login relationship with Disqus. Click the Disqus icon below, enter your e-mail and click “forgot password” to reset your password. You may also log into Disqus using Facebook, Twitter or Google.

Human Development

If your kid hates broccoli, try, try again

By Laura Sanders 5:52pm, April 7, 2014
Repeated exposure to foods may be the antidote to picky eating.
Neuroscience,, Health

Autism spike may reflect better diagnoses, and that's a good thing

By Laura Sanders 2:10pm, March 28, 2014
As doctors get better at spotting autism spectrum disorders, kids may get help earlier — and the numbers of diagnoses will increase.
Human Development

Telling kids lies may teach them to lie

By Laura Sanders 12:21pm, March 25, 2014
In a new study, kids who were told a lie were more likely to later tell a fib themselves. The results should encourage parents not to lie to their kids.
Human Development

Sugar doesn’t make kids hyper, and other parenting myths

By Laura Sanders 4:37pm, March 17, 2014
There’s no shortage of advice out there for parents, but some pearls of wisdom simply aren’t true.
Human Development,, Language

Overheard, baby edition: Making sense of new words

By Laura Sanders 2:00pm, March 11, 2014
Eavesdropping babies learn new words when they understand familiar ones.
Human Development,, Neuroscience

Should you hush that white noise?

By Laura Sanders 12:05am, March 3, 2014
Some sleep machines can pump out a dangerous amount of noise, but that doesn’t mean they can’t be used safely.
Health,, Human Development

Brush kids’ teeth with just a little fluoride toothpaste

By Laura Sanders 9:50am, February 25, 2014
The American Dental Association has released new brushing guidelines for infants.
Human Development,, Nutrition

Does breast milk come in pink and blue?

By Laura Sanders 6:00pm, February 10, 2014
A new analysis of cows shows that mamas make more milk for daughters. Other studies have hinted that human moms produce different milk for sons than for daughters, so perhaps lactating women also boost production for daughters.
Human Development

Should your kid eat organic? The answer is complicated

By Laura Sanders 4:47pm, January 31, 2014
The science behind kids’ pesticide exposure is complicated and patchy.
Human Development

Your baby knows who your real friends are

By Laura Sanders 11:20am, January 30, 2014
Infants are surprisingly good judges of who ought to be friendly to each other.
Subscribe to RSS - Growth Curve