If you think you’ve mastered all things video conference, try managing this group chat arrangement.
Caller 1 – One giddy grandma
Caller 2 – One aunt and a cousin age 2
Caller 3 – One uncle and two cousins age 3 and 5
Caller 4 – One dad and two siblings age 2 and 6
Sure, for sheer numbers, you could probably recount a tale of some office-to-office-to-office conference call that numbered dozens. Hopefully for your sake though, none of those participants kept trying to bite the others. Or insisted on hitting the computer screen. Or randomly yelled “Hi Grandma!” every few minutes for the duration of the call.
Such are the joys of getting the extended family together online, and for families like mine that are divided by a continent, these video web chat calls are integral to keeping our kids at the heart of family life.
For remote parents, however, video calls via kid friendly video chat apps can be integral to building a lasting relationship with their kids.
Skype Is Good for Kids
Last year, the American Academy of Pediatrics softened its ‘no screen time for young kids’ stance by declaring that children as young as two can, in fact, benefit from Skype calling. Its research found that kids can be socially and emotionally engaged by a video call in ways they cannot with non-interactive media like television and streaming cartoons.
It’s not a blanket green light for toddler video chatting, however. As the American group’s northern cousin, the Canadian Paediatric Society recently stated, there are some caveats to getting young ones online.
- No video calling at all before 18 months old
- An adult must be present at all times to explain what’s happening
- Keep talking, as audio is more important than video
- The child must have in-person contact with the other callers before going online
- Calls should be brief, to match a child’s attention span
With those rules in mind, the Canadian experts encourage immediate family members to make frequent video calls where circumstance leave them physically separated from their children. Even multiple calls per day are OK for growing families still getting to know each other.
If you are making family video calls that frequently, there are several different platforms you can use to add a little variety to virtual family time.
Family Video Calling Apps
The most familiar way to launch a family video call is to get on Skype. I know from my own experience that there are many Grannies out there that think Skype is the only way to video chat–that Skype IS video chat. And there’s nothing wrong with using old faithful. It’s free, it can handle up to 10 callers in the basic mode, and it’s already loaded if you’re using a Windows machine.
There are apps with more age-appropriate features out there, however.
- Google Hangouts. As I alluded to earlier, once you get more than a couple of kids online things get chaotic. As audio is important to children, it must be confusing to see faces in several chat windows and not be sure who is talking. Google Hangouts’ active speaker technology can provide a solution. The feature automatically switches the image of the current speaker to a large central screen, leaving the listeners waiting in smaller windows along the bottom.
- JusTalk. If that’s not enough to keep the two-year-old’s attention, try adding some digital finger painting to the equation. I sometimes use JusTalk despite its less-than-sensational call quality because its doodle feature lets the kids draw all over their cousins’ faces. You could argue it helps develop fine motor skills, but really it’s just plain fun.
- ooVoo. Finally, though it might run against the experts’ recommendation, you can use ooVoo video chat to share streaming video from YouTube together. It doesn’t seem like there’d be any harm in having all the cousins join their Granny for a real-time sing-along, be it Kermit’s Zulu alphabet song or the Springsteen cover “Barn in the USA”.
The point, after all, is to let the kids spend some quality time with their distant family members.
Screen Time Can Be Family Time
The mayhem of the one Grandma-five grandchildren call I described above is fun, and is important to my family, but the experts seem to tell us video calling with young kids works best one-on-one.
Everyone can imagine a time where they are separated from their kids for even just a few days. The longing to see them can be overpowering. In the case of a long-time separation, like that endured by serving military personnel or people who travel regularly for work, any form of communication is invaluable.
So it’s great to know that while the absent parent is doing something that makes them feel better, the little ones on the other end are benefitting as well. It gives them a chance to hear their parent’s voice and continue building a face-to-face relationship despite the many miles that may be between them.
For me, video calling keeps West Coast Grandma and the cousins an interactive part of my East Coast children’s lives during the many months we all spend apart. For others, it may be strong enough to build a bond that lasts a lifetime.