'Virtually' getting to know the grandparents

Totally tuned in … Kim McEachen and her 18-month-old daughter Iona Skyping her parents in Delaware.
Totally tuned in … Kim McEachen and her 18-month-old daughter Iona Skyping her parents in Delaware.

IONA McEachen is used to her grandmother singing for her. As grandma Perri Schmidt softly chants the words to Itsy Bitsy Spider and The Wheels on the Bus her 18-month-old grandchild appears completely enthralled. Sometimes she even walks up to her and offers a spontaneous kiss - on a laptop screen.

Mostly, this is how Iona and her grandmother have got to know each other. At least three times a week Ms Schmidt in Missouri, USA, will Skype her daughter in Melbourne, Kim McEachen, and they chat briefly before Iona takes over.

From early on, Ms McEachen started to believe that video-chatting was helping nurture a connection between her daughter, Ms Schmidt, Iona's other grandparents, Bill and Maggie McEachen, in Delaware, and other relatives across the US. ''She totally tunes in,'' says Ms McEachen. ''She will blow them kisses and offer them snacks.''

For infant and child development psychologist Dr Jordy Kaufman, Iona's interaction is not surprising. Years ago the founder and director of the Swinburne Baby Lab found himself thinking about his own son's connection to his parents, who lived in Britain, and whether video-chat helped build a stronger relationship.

''They lived in the UK for a year, and we would Skype, and then one time at the airport, with kids that age often experiencing stranger anxiety, my son acted as if they weren't strangers … as if we had never been living on opposite sides of the world,'' he said.

In recent years, the number of children connecting with distant family members through video-chat has skyrocketed. For this reason, Dr Kaufman set out to investigate it.

The study separated 41 children from a parent and looked at the child playing in a room filled with toys with that parent ''virtually available''. Later, researchers again separated the child from their parent, this time without them available for video-chat.

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Results showed children were happier to be left alone and displayed more exploratory behaviour when their parent was virtually present than when they were not. They were also happy to be alone for longer - 85 per cent of children were content for the entire separation with video link compared with 37 per cent without.

Researchers concluded that for children as young as 17 months a video presence was ''similar to an actual presence''.

''We argue that these findings are a strong indicator that familial relationships can be reasonably maintained through video communication,'' Dr Kaufman and colleagues Joanne Tarasuik and Roslyn Galligan wrote in their conclusions.

Ms Tarasuik, who is examining how children experience video communication for her PhD, said the next stage of the study looked at comparing phone calls with video-chat and early results have shown that video-chat is more emotionally significant.

''Preliminary findings have shown that the video link was superior to the audio link,'' Ms Tarasuik said. ''Children were playing more and were happier … they were enjoying the video link more.''

This story 'Virtually' getting to know the grandparents first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.