Video chat technologies can be important for families to develop and maintain relationships with distant relatives and family members. However, are video chat interactions meaningful for young children and do they gain anything from them? A new study says yes.

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Young children can tell the difference between live interactions and pre-recorded interactions.

In a world of ever-changing technological innovation, channels of communication are constantly increasing and developing.

The role of media in the lives of adolescents and children has been transformed from TV, movies, and books to the vast world of digital media. Ways to communicate through the Internet are continually expanding.

Current guidelines by the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) advise that TV and entertainment media such as computers, video games, and phones should be avoided for children under the age of 2.

The AAP say studies have shown that excessive “screen time” leads to attention issues, difficulties at school, sleep and eating disorders, and obesity.

Estimates indicate that 38 percent of infants younger than the age of 2 use mobile devices such as smartphones. Can social interactions and learning be promoted through video chat technology, such as FaceTime, or is it another distraction from real-life social interaction that will subsequently impair learning?

Prof. Lauren J. Myers, Ph.D., a developmental psychologist who studies children’s cognitive and social-cognitive development, and her team at the Lafayette Kids Lab at Lafayette College in Easton, PA, have published their study in the journal Development Science to answer that question.

The research team found that there might be a difference between simply placing an infant in front of a TV and having interactive conversations via video chat. “In this study, we tested whether young children form relationships with and learn from people via video chat,” says Myers.

The aim of the study was to solve why infants and toddlers learn more from exchanges in person than from video.

Myers and colleagues evaluated two groups of 1- to 2-year-old children’s learning from video chat. A total of 60 children participated in the study. Half of the group experienced 1 week of real-time FaceTime conversations while the remaining children were shown pre-recorded videos.

The on-screen person in both real-time and pre-recorded interactions taught novel words, actions and patterns, and the child was reviewed after 1 week.

In both groups, the children paid attention and responded to the person on screen. However, only children who experienced interactions via FaceTime responded in sync with their on-screen partner by imitating actions such as clapping.

Children in the FaceTime group recognized a person they had “met” via video chat and learned new words and patterns.

Learning did not occur in children who were in the group that experienced pre-recorded interactions where the on-screen person could not hear or see the child.

Myers points out that learning is possible in those children who connected via live video chat because it imitates person-to-person interaction whereby the infant and partner can communicate back and forth accurately.

The researchers observed that from the age of 17 months, toddlers can interact and respond via real-time video chat, and can recognize family and friends on video chat that they know in real life.

“They start to understand who that person is on the screen, and they’re able to get something meaningful out of the live video interaction with them,” explains Myers.

We found evidence that young kids can tell the difference between live interactions and the pre-recorded ‘fake’ interactions that included pauses after questions and ‘calls to respond’ similar to those featured in Dora the Explorer and other popular children’s programs on TV.”

Prof. Lauren J. Myers, Ph.D., Lafayette Kids Lab at Lafayette College

The results are promising that video interactions may be seen as a way for infants to connect in a meaningful way with long-distance family and friends. However, this result is not the same for pre-recorded interactions that are designed to seem real.

An abstract of the study can be seen in the video below:

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