As the holidays speed toward us, families are gathering and basking in the joy of being together, if only for a wink of time. We revel in the experience because it feeds us for another year — the contact, the conversations, the realization that despite the distance, we are part of a broader community. We belong. Yet, when the holidays are over, we feel nostalgia, but not permanent loss because our family is a mere phone call, text or WhatsApp away. Unless you are a young child.
In nearly 100 million families in the United States, children are separated from primary loved ones (parents, caregivers, grandparents) due to jobs, divorce, military deployment, incarceration or family re-location. Yet, the technologies that we rely on to mimic the connections do not resonate for our youngest family members. Those with young kids have seen it happen. The 6 year-old wandering away from a video call. The toddler squirming at a conversation that is clearly adult-sided.
Young children connect by doing activities while having conversations as they are engaged. They will talk, but what they will do more if the conversation occurs while reading books, playing games, doing art projects, watching videos or doing homework. Simply put, young kids need to talk about what they are doing, and they need the ability to shift their attention among activities without too much disruption. Wandering and squirming are the results without the right tools.
This disconnect matters for kids who experience a constant distance from their primary adults. Research shows that children separated by distance experience higher rates of behavioral/emotional issues, academic declines even at kindergarten age and higher drop-out rates. Loving and committed adults attempt to bridge this separation through technology, but for children under the age of 12, the solutions have limited use.
While current technology offers modestly adequate ways to support talk communication (Skype and Facetime), prolonged conversation is not only difficult for young children to sustain, it is generally ineffective to maintain and build relationships when separated by distance. Unlike older children who have a cognitive understanding of telecommunications, young children do not. They experience difficulty connecting to someone who is not physically present, and they lack the attention span to hold a conversation.
Recognizing that children need something more than just the ability to see and talk to adults, existing technologies have simply scaled-down known adult technology solutions (gamification or messaging for children) or created the ability for children and adults to do very limited types of activities together.
Companies like The Family Room, Kindoma and UsTyme are working in different ways to create unique and transformative technologies to support interactions over the internet between young children and the adults that care for them. As Silicon Valley searches for the next solution, families must demand answers for a challenge that will not decrease anytime soon.
Connecting young kids and technology solutions that will change their cognitive and emotional health can last a lifetime. But we’ve got to start making those connections now.
Originally published at medium.com