Babies Can Tell the Difference Between FaceTime Grandma and YouTube Elmo

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It’s a dilemma for parents in the digital age: We know we’re not supposed to prop our four-month-olds in front of an iPad and let them watch Dora until their eyes bleed. But technology has made the rules of screens complicated—what if Gramps and Gran want to FaceTime? Turns out babies are smart enough to know the difference.


Over at The Atlantic, Adrienne LaFrance talked to several researchers who all agreed that babies know when they’re having a conversation on video chat vs. simply watching a video. Babies as young as three months can pick up on all sorts of verbal and empathetic cues which help them understand if the person on-screen is performing or interacting with them in real time. (They’re also just as sensitive as grown-ups to sound glitches or breaks in the video feed—get used to it, kid!)

Interestingly, there are even long-term studies on how babies relate to interactive video vs. recorded content, like a series of studies performed by Georgine Troseth and her Vanderbilt colleagues over a decade ago, which showed babies live video feeds of themselves. It seems even for babies it’s all about context:

“If you had a kid who had never seen television and they’d never used a computer—and the first time they used a screen there’s a person using their name and talking to them—what would their experience be like compared with someone whose experience with screens first involved roadrunners running off a cliff and not falling down?” Troseth said. “I think the social support of the person who’s with the child could be really, really important.”

So the most important part in helping your baby to understand the difference between what’s real vs. Netflix might be your role as the parent, or whoever else is mediating the video chat, by framing the experience: “There’s Pop Pop! Give him a kiss!” That’s probably not something you’re doing when you watch television, so even though a screen is involved, you’re still having more of a conversation.

The field of video chat is being studied more often as it becomes embraced as an important tool for kids to form relationships with grandparents or other family members who might be far away. And it is becoming a prevalent way for family members to communicate: One Georgetown study of DC parents found that 85% of families with babies under two had used it, with 40% of families using it once a week.

[Read the entire story at The Atlantic]

Photo: Tyler Olson




I feel this test in the article is inconclusive. What if they showed a video of grandpa/grandma to the baby? how long until the baby realizes it’s a video instead of live facetime?

Elmo is but a furry red puppet. The baby should be able to distinguish Elmo vs real people.

So the question becomes, can the baby distinguish between actual live interactive feed of a familiar face vs. a pre-recorded video of familiar faces...