Babies Can Tell the Difference Between FaceTime Grandparent and YouTube Elmo

By Alissa Walker on at

It’s a dilemma for parents in the digital age: we know we’re not supposed to prop our four-month-olds in front of an iPad and let them watch Dora until their eyes bleed. But technology has made the rules of screens complicated: what if Nan and Grandad want to FaceTime? Turns out babies are smart enough to know the difference.

Over at The Atlantic, Adrienne LaFrance talked to several researchers who all agreed that babies know when they’re having a conversation on video chat versus simply watching a video. Babies as young as three months can pick up on all sorts of verbal and empathetic cues which help them understand if the person on-screen is performing for them or interacting with them in real time. (They’re also just as sensitive as grown-ups to sound glitches or breaks in the video feed — get used to it, kid!)

Interestingly, there are even long-term studies on how babies relate to interactive video over recorded content, like a series of studies performed by Georgine Troseth and her Vanderbilt colleagues over a decade ago, which showed babies live video feeds of themselves:

“If you had a kid who had never seen television and they’d never used a computer—and the first time they used a screen there’s a person using their name and talking to them—what would their experience be like compared with someone whose experience with screens first involved roadrunners running off a cliff and not falling down?” Troseth said. “I think the social support of the person who’s with the child could be really, really important.”

So the most important part in helping your baby to understand the difference between what’s real versus Netflix might be your role as the parent, or whoever else is mediating the video chat, by framing the experience: “There’s Pop Pop! Give him a kiss!” That’s probably not something you’re doing when you watch television, so even though a screen is involved, you’re still having more of a conversation.

The field of video chat is being studied more often as it becomes embraced as an important tool for kids to form relationships with grandparents or other family members who might be far away. And it is becoming a prevalent way for family members to communicate: One US study of parents found that 85 per cent of families with babies under two had used it, with 40 per cent of families using it once a week. [Read the entire story at The Atlantic]

Photo: Tyler Olson