Researchers FaceTimed with toddlers to find out what 'Dora the Explorer' was missing.

Jocelyn Stevenson's first granddaughter, Ismay, was born last year.

"I was completely stunned by the impact it had one me," she said in an email. "Being a grandma rocks!"

But Ismay lives in Boston. And while Stevenson was able to be there for Ismay's first month or so, she eventually had to go back home to the United Kingdom, thousands of miles and an ocean away.


"I thought being a grandmother rather than a mother meant the distance wouldn't get me. Wrong!" she said.

It's hard to be away from your kids, especially when they're so little.

Stevenson said she visits Ismay as often as she can. "And for the rest of the time, we use FaceTime. Daily."

Whether it's because of work, military duty, or living situations, a lot of people are in situations like these. They have to spend time away from their loved ones, so they use video chat programs such as FaceTime or Skype to stay connected.

Photo via iStock.

"FaceTime has allowed us to grow our relationship," Stevenson said, "even though we're not in the same physical space." When they FaceTime, Stevenson and Ismay play with finger puppets, learn animal sounds, and sing songs.

But, Stevenson said, "I've been wondering what kids must make of it. What doe she think when Grandma is there reading her a book one day, and then [is] a head in a computer the next?"

Turns out, researchers are pretty interested in how kids respond to video chatting, too.

A team of psychologists at Lafayette College recently tested 60 toddlers, age 12-25 months, to see if they would learn better from video chats with real people or from videos.

The experimental setup. Photo from Lafayette Kids Lab/Lafayette College.

They were particularly interested in something called the "video deficit."

The American Academy of Pediatrics, for instance, discourages a lot of screen time for kids, especially kids under age 2.

Photo via iStock.

That's because some research shows kids don't learn well from videos and other screens, especially when compared to interactions with real people.

"A child's brain develops rapidly during these first years, and young children learn best by interacting with people, not screens," the AAP said.

But what happens if we move beyond Dora the Explorer and put a real-life person in a screen?

That's what the researchers at Lafayette College wanted to test.

For a week, half of the kids had FaceTime sessions with researchers. The other half got prerecorded "pseudo-interactive" videos (think of Dora the Explorer and her questions — "Do youuuuu see Swiper?" — and you'll get the idea). Both sessions tried to teach the kids to recognize new patterns and words.

At first, all of the kids paid attention to the screen, no matter what was on it. But at the end of that week, the researchers tested the kids to see what they remembered.

Lo and behold, video chat won by a mile. The kids remembered more of the patterns and words when they were taught by real people, even if those people were miles away.

When it comes to young kids and learning, it's all about real social interactions, the researchers said.

The kids "start to understand who that person is on the screen, and they’re able to get something meaningful out of the live video interaction with them,” said professor Lauren Myers, who led the study.

No matter how much you love Dora the Explorer, she just doesn't have that real social interaction that a call with grandma does.

Now, it's not completely analogous — the kids in this study had never met the person in the video before, for example. And the researchers only saw a real effect after the kids were about 17 months old. So more research will probably need to be done before we extoll the miraculous effect of FaceTime on newborns.

But there's also no shame in letting your kids have some screen time with far-away loved ones. 'Cause this study hints that, for toddlers, video chats aren't just another form of entertainment — there's actually a connection there, and that's pretty awesome.

We have enough to worry about when we're away from the kids we love.

But on this whole "screen time" debate, at least, maybe we can breathe a little easier.

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