Video calls between grandparents and grandchildren are vital during COVID-19. Here are simple ways to improve them

COVID-19 has seen a huge increase video call as we try to distance ourselves socially while still staying in touch.

This is particularly the case with grandparents and their grandchildren, who have either chosen to stay away, given the vulnerability of the elderly coronavirus, or was forced to separate due to locks and border closures.

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As researchers in early childhood, psychology, and linguistics, we study how video calls fit into the lives of grandparents and their grandchildren, and how we can improve that interaction.

Our research

In a project with Western Sydney University BabyLab, we’re asking grandparents and parents about their experience using video chat with children under five, to capture the changes COVID-19 brings.

So far, 130 grandparents and parents from across Australia have responded.

Among those surveyed, on average, grandparents make video calls two to three times a week with their grandchildren, for about five to ten minutes. They mainly used FaceTime and Facebook Messenger, as apps already available on their phones.

‘Be part of their life’

About 40% of grandparents surveyed started using video calls with their grandchildren for the first time during COVID-19. For all those interviewed, it was a rather positive experience.

Grandparents say the calls keep them in touch with their grandchildren – with respondents saying “being a part of their life” and “not failing to watch them grow up.”

A grandmother, who started using video chat with her granddaughter during COVID-19, said

I can see her and see her react to our voices and smile, which makes me feel good.

Another experienced user, with grandchildren overseas, also said

Because it’s so common – almost every day – I know their surroundings, it feels normal to me. There is no shyness, you can start a book one day and continue each day. We walk around theirs, in my apartment and in my garden and I just feel part of their life.

But there are challenges. Not surprisingly, the biggest challenge was keeping the children’s attention during calls.

For some, the interaction was “artificial and detached”. As one parent said

It was more of a novelty than a way to have a real connection with people.

Other parents described the experience as stressful, stressing that the call had to be “at the right time”. As one parent remarked of her one-year-old daughter, “she’s too stimulated and not going to bed.”

Some grandparents also expressed concern that this was an additional burden on parents and efforts were scrapped

I only did it once because it was too hard to fit into their already busy day.

What does this mean for “screen time”?

Many parents and grandparents we interviewed wonder what the increase in video calls means “screen time“.

Is it dangerous in any way for children? And for babies under 12 months, is there a benefit? Can it really help these little ones remember their grandparents?

But video calls aren’t just “screen time”. On the contrary, they offer an important opportunity for socialization, as young children can still mimic information generally available in face-to-face interactions.

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The key seems to be the instant feedback that video provides. As recent research shows, children one and two years old can develop a social connection and learn the names of objects of a person they see and speak with through a video call.

Babies as young as four and five months prefer to look at pictures of faces rather than other toys and objects. This continues in their second year of life.

So yes, you can engage a young child through FaceTime – and it can help their development.

But how do you optimize video calls with young children?

Tips for preparing for a video call

  • Place your device on a firm surface, using your case or something similar like a tripod to free your hands for gesturing and showing objects.

  • Try to keep the light source in front of you, excessive glare from the sun behind you leads to poor quality video.

  • Minimize background noise (such as washing machine or radio).

  • Make calling a part of your routine to get children to expect and get used to the calls.

Turn off the radio and minimize other background noise when making video calls.
  • Make calls at a time of day when you can all relax – when babies are fed, changed and alert, and older children are fed and not too tired.

  • Before making the call, parents can share pictures, videos, and messages describing new skills or activities since your last conversation, so grandparents have something to ask questions and discuss.

  • Prepare the child before the call to help them manage their expectations. For example, ask them to choose their favorite toy or drawing so that they can show and talk about it.

  • Start with shorter calls (around five minutes) and increase the duration as you see fit.

Tips for continuing the call

  • For parents, consider making a video call when doing routine activities, such as cooking, sharing meals, or bathing time – this can get grandparents into the daily routine and reduce the stress of finding a moment to call.

  • As a grandparent, try to keep eye contact and talk about things that baby or child is paying attention to at this time.

  • Use songs and games (“pat-a-cake” and “peekaboo” are good examples) to get babies’ attention. Musical statues are a good game to play with older children.

Video calls are an important opportunity to learn social skills.
  • Make faces and hand gestures, blow kisses.

  • Dance, take a tour of your house or garden, or try to exercise together.

  • Set aside a few books to use for video calls. You can continue to read longer books with older children every time you call.

  • Try out various filters or virtual backgrounds built into your apps to make them more interesting for kids and give yourself something else to say about.

Save the children has more information on how to stay in touch with grandparents.

If you are a grandparent, you can register to participate in the BabyLab survey here. Parents can register here.

Read more:
Pregnant in a pandemic? If you are stressed, there is help

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About Nunnally Maurice

Nunnally Maurice

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