Should my toddler Skype with grandma? Experts talk balancing screen time with family time

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WATCH ABOVE: While paediatricians don’t recommend screen time for children under two years old, an expert in media and child health says connecting with relatives can and should be an exception – Jun 13, 2017

Skype and FaceTime have replaced long distance phone calls as a way for many Canadian families to connect with relatives. But with the Canadian Paediatric Society (CPS) recommending no screen time for children under two years old, some parents wonder if toddlers should be left out of the conversation.

In a statement, the CPS clarifies its stance about video chats under the age of two years old:

“Screens are not harmful in and of themselves. Our concern is that they replace other activities and learning experiences suitable for growing children.

“Videochats with caring adults via Skype or FaceTime can be interactive and socially contingent when they involve timely responses to what a child says or does— and can therefore be a positive use of screen time.

“For children under five, this kind of interaction may be more important and impactful for the adult than for the child, who should be allowed to control the length and intensity of this kind of exchange.”

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READ MORE: Here’s how much screen time your kids should be getting, according to new recommendations

Dr. Michelle Ponti, a paediatrician and chair of the digital health task force at the CPS, says if a family wants to include a toddler in video chats, start at 18 months old and ensure an adult is present to explain what is happening so they can make the connection.

As founder of the Boston Children’s Hospital’s Center on Media and Child Health, Dr. Michael Rich, has counselled families on the same question. Global News reached out to Dr. Rich for his take on how to navigate paediatricians’ recommendations for screen time and the need to connect with family. Family Matters producer Christine Meadows spoke with him.

Christine Meadows: Is it harmful for a child under two years old to video chat?

Dr. Michael Rich: There’s no evidence yet that the radiation from something sitting in front of them that they are staring at has really any effect. I think this is short-range radiation.

The jury is still very much out on whether the radiation we absorb — particularly in short, discontinuous bursts — has really any affect on us.

Now, of course, all of these questions won’t be answered for a generation, but at this point, we don’t see any reason to avoid them particularly when they are held out in front of the child.

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CM: Is exposure to video chats affecting their development?

MR: This arises to a certain degree out of the American Academy of Pediatrics’ recommendations that came out first in 1999 that we discourage screen media use under the age of two. What has to be recognized about that is that was based entirely on receptive television viewing, the research on that. Interactive media is very much different in some ways and is the same in others. The ways in which it is different is there is an interaction, an interchange, between what’s on the screen and the child.

What we really don’t know yet is at what age is the child actually able to decode that two-dimensional symbol on the screen as grandma’s face. If you observe your young child when they are doing Skype, what you will see is that it is really the audio more than the video that they are reacting to. They recognize the voice.

They first have to have real contact with the actual people. If this is the only contact they have with them, it’s really an abstract one. That’s grandma on the screen. We don’t see a lot of evidence that they are then able to say, ‘Oh, hi Grandma’ when they meet grandma for the first time after two years of Skyping with her. I think it’s really important to establish that person in their life and establish the verbal exchange with grandma and grandpa and then, if they are getting only 30 per cent of that interaction, that’s 30 per cent better than zero.

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CM: What’s the right amount of time?

MR: First of all, depending on the age of the child, their attention span is very limited, particularly when they are quite young and it gets longer and longer. So the first thing I would do is know your child’s attention span and only do it for that amount of time.

Don’t park them in front of it for an extended period of time but say, ‘OK, we’re going to call grandma for five minutes or 15 minutes,’ depending on how old the child is.

But it’s really important to watch the child and observe when he or she checks out because the becomes quite obvious. They start looking at other things. They get distracted… Particularly for very young kids, it may be most useful to just show grandma and grandpa what the baby is doing or what the toddler is doing but not try to engage the child in it.

CM: Are there different parameters depending on the relationship? For example, in the case of a father who works out of town?

MR: It’s somewhat of an attenuated experience compared to being able to crawl into daddy’s lap, there’s no question about it. But I would not tell him, ‘turn it off.’ I would say do it, and keep doing it and in that sort of a case, I would do it more frequently with a dad as opposed to say a grandparent because that relationship is one where you really need to be very present on an almost continuous basis. I don’t think there would be any problem in him checking in with her daily, even more than daily.


The Canadian Paediatric Society’s media guidelines for young children

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Dr. Rich’s Center on Media and Child Health

The American Academy of Pediatrics tool to create a family media plan

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