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.

True

When Sue Hoppin was in college, she met the man she was going to marry. "I was attending the University of Denver, and he was at the Air Force Academy," she says. "My dad had also attended the University of Denver and warned me not to date those flyboys from the Springs."

"He didn't say anything about marrying one of them," she says. And so began her life as a military spouse.

The life brings some real advantages, like opportunities to live abroad — her family got to live all around the US, Japan, and Germany — but it also comes with some downsides, like having to put your spouse's career over your own goals.

"Though we choose to marry someone in the military, we had career goals before we got married, and those didn't just disappear."

Career aspirations become more difficult to achieve, and progress comes with lots of starts and stops. After experiencing these unique challenges firsthand, Sue founded an organization to help other military spouses in similar situations.

Sue had gotten a degree in international relations because she wanted to pursue a career in diplomacy, but for fourteen years she wasn't able to make any headway — not until they moved back to the DC area. "Eighteen months later, many rejections later, it became apparent that this was going to be more challenging than I could ever imagine," she says.

Eighteen months is halfway through a typical assignment, and by then, most spouses are looking for their next assignment. "If I couldn't find a job in my own 'hometown' with multiple degrees and a great network, this didn't bode well for other military spouses," she says.

She's not wrong. Military spouses spend most of their lives moving with their partners, which means they're often far from family and other support networks. When they do find a job, they often make less than their civilian counterparts — and they're more likely to experience underemployment or unemployment. In fact, on some deployments, spouses are not even allowed to work.

Before the pandemic, military spouse unemployment was 22%. Since the pandemic, it's expected to rise to 35%.

Sue eventually found a job working at a military-focused nonprofit, and it helped her get the experience she needed to create her own dedicated military spouse program. She wrote a book and started saving up enough money to start the National Military Spouse Network (NMSN), which she founded in 2010 as the first organization of its kind.

"I founded the NMSN to help professional military spouses develop flexible careers they could perform from any location."

"Over the years, the program has expanded to include a free digital magazine, professional development events, drafting annual White Papers and organizing national and local advocacy to address the issues of most concern to the professional military spouse community," she says.

Not only was NMSN's mission important to Sue on a personal level she also saw it as part of something bigger than herself.

"Gone are the days when families can thrive on one salary. Like everyone else, most military families rely on two salaries to make ends meet. If a military spouse wants or needs to work, they should be able to," she says.

"When less than one percent of our population serves in the military," she continues, "we need to be able to not only recruit the best and the brightest but also retain them."

"We lose out as a nation when service members leave the force because their spouse is unable to find employment. We see it as a national security issue."

"The NMSN team has worked tirelessly to jumpstart the discussion and keep the challenges affecting military spouses top of mind. We have elevated the conversation to Congress and the White House," she continues. "I'm so proud of the fact that corporations, the government, and the general public are increasingly interested in the issues affecting military spouses and recognizing the employment roadblocks they unfairly have faced."

"We have collectively made other people care, and in doing so, we elevated the issues of military spouse unemployment to a national and global level," she adds. "In the process, we've also empowered military spouses to advocate for themselves and our community so that military spouse employment issues can continue to remain at the forefront."

Not only has NMSN become a sought-after leader in the military spouse employment space, but Sue has also seen the career she dreamed of materializing for herself. She was recently invited to participate in the public re-launch of Joining Forces, a White House initiative supporting military and veteran families, with First Lady Dr. Jill Biden.

She has also had two of her recommendations for practical solutions introduced into legislation just this year. She was the first in the Air Force community to show leadership the power of social media to reach both their airmen and their military families.

That is why Sue is one of Tory Burch's "Empowered Women" this year. The $5,000 donation will be going to The Madeira School, a school that Sue herself attended when she was in high school because, she says, "the lessons I learned there as a student pretty much set the tone for my personal and professional life. It's so meaningful to know that the donation will go towards making a Madeira education more accessible to those who may not otherwise be able to afford it and providing them with a life-changing opportunity."

Most military children will move one to three times during high school so having a continuous four-year experience at one high school can be an important gift. After traveling for much of her formative years, Sue attended Madeira and found herself "in an environment that fostered confidence and empowerment. As young women, we were expected to have a voice and advocate not just for ourselves, but for those around us."

To learn more about Tory Burch and Upworthy's Empowered Women program visit https://www.toryburch.com/empoweredwomen/. Nominate an inspiring woman in your community today!

Those of us raising teenagers now didn't grow up with social media. Heck, the vast majority of us didn't even grow up with the internet. But we know how ubiquitous social media, with all of its psychological pitfalls, has become in our own lives, so it's not a big stretch to imagine the incredible impact it can have on our kids during their most self-conscious phase.

Sharing our lives on social media often means sharing the highlights. That's not bad in and of itself, but when all people are seeing is everyone else's highlight reels, it's easy to fall into unhealthy comparisons. As parents, we need to remind our teens not to do that—but we also need to remind them that other people will do that, which is why kindness, empathy, and inclusiveness are so important.

Writer and mother of three teen daughters, Whitney Fleming, shared a beautiful post on Facebook explaining what we need to teach our teenagers about empathy in the age of social media, and how we ourselves can serve as an example.

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