Ask the Mediatrician: Is it OK for my baby to video chat with his grandparents?

Grandmother doing a Facetime video chat with granddaughter at brunch.

I’d like to video chat with my 3-month-old grandson on my phone. His parents are concerned that the video emitted from the screen will affect his brain development and eyes. Any advice will be helpful! ~ Nana, New York, NY

Dear Nana,

This is a great question and one many of today’s parents face when thinking about sharing their children’s lives with faraway friends and relatives. Here are five things you may not know about video chatting and young children.

A smartphone is OK — a laptop or desktop is even better.

Today’s flat screens do not emit any radiation other than light. Smartphones do emit some electromagnetic radiation, and while there are mixed data on potential dangers, the best evidence indicates that the greatest risk involved is if the phone is held against the head, rather than looked at from a distance as is done with FaceTime, Skype and other video chat applications.

Babies learn more from video chat than from educational videos.

Research shows that children 12-25 months old learn better from real time interactive video chat with adults than from educational videos. This is likely because video chat allows an adult to react to the individual child and tailor their actions to best suit the child.

Video chat is better than TV.

Researchers have also found that as early as six months of age, babies are able to tell when a person on a screen is interacting with them in real time as opposed to the passive screen images they see when they watch TV or a video. This means that babies can start forming relationships through video chat with others who live far away, especially if the chats are facilitated by the adult who is physically with them (i.e., telling your baby, he’s talking to grandma, pointing and waving at the screen, describing and modeling video chatting).

Your child can develop relationships through video chat.

Even though your son may not be fully understanding that grandma and grandpa are seeing and talking to him, the opportunity for them to see, hear and talk to him as he grows and develops is important to your parents and the relationship they are forming with him. Although video chatting is still not as rich or stimulating an environment for your son’s social-emotional and brain development as being with his grandparents in person, it is much better than no contact with them at all, and can help them build a meaningful relationship with him.

Quality of screen time counts.

The American Academy of Pediatrics changed their policy in 2016 about children’s early exposure to screens. This is in part because the Academy recognized that interactive learning and communication through screens offers positive possibilities, such as staying connected with grandparents, that passive media like TV did not. The research has shown that children’s screen time is less concerning than what they are doing with their screen time.

It’s important to know the content to which your child is exposed, and to understand how he may be affected by that content. While FaceTime or Skype may displace developmentally valuable play time, the relationship he is building with his grandparents is likely worth the few minutes that the screen is able to hold his attention.

Enjoy your media and use them wisely,

~The Mediatrician®