Connecting Long-Distance

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Grandparents and grandchildren often share a very important emotional bond and both groups can benefit from a strong relationship. When grandparents and grandchildren live far apart, it can be difficult for them to stay connected. Fortunately, technology can help fill the gap and bridge the distance divide. One way to do this is through video calling systems like FaceTime, Zoom or other video conferencing platforms. We have studied this topic extensively in my research group at Simon Fraser University with an emphasis on young grandchildren between the ages of 4 and 10. Here are some things that we have learned.

First, video chat is typically loved by both grandparents and young grandchildren because each gets to see the other. This should come as no surprise. Yet even with video going, it can be challenging to keep a child’s attention over a video call. Unlike a conversation between two adults, young grandchildren are unlikely to be able to maintain a conversation beyond 10 to 15 minutes until they get to the pre-teen years. Research has shown this is better than phone calls, however, where typically the attention span of children is far less than video calls.

Because of a child’s short attention, it is important for grandparents to be able to focus video calls around a child’s interests. The grandparents who were able to do this in our studies tended to have longer and more enjoyable conversations. For example, some grandparents figured out the names of a child’s friends and could then directly ask about them. Some learned about their grandchildren’s extra-curricular activities ahead of time so that they could ask how things were going. Young grandchildren also enjoy showing off their toys or things that they create at school. Some grandparents would ask parents ahead of time about these objects so they would know which to ask their grandchildren about when talking with them. Young children are also interested in learning about things from their grandparents that are different from their own location. This might be related to different time zones, the weather, or culture and heritage.

Some grandparents were in our studies even more creative—for example, one grandmother learned that her grandson was interested in armies and camouflage and so she made him a camouflage blanket and mailed it to him. When they talked over a video call, they would spend large amounts of time talking about the blanket and making up stories about it together.

Having read the above, you might be thinking, this sounds pretty easy. Well, truth be told, it isn’t, as many grandparents can likely attest to. There are many social challenges that make grandparent and grandchild communication over distance still difficult.

Video calls between young grandparents and grandchildren can require a lot of parent scaffolding—that is, help from parents to keep the call going. Parents often have to be the ones that perform the “camera work” where they hold a tablet or cell phone and move it to make sure the children are in view. Some children can do this on their own, but it can easily be disorienting for grandparents who are watching. The camera might end up facing the floor, the ceiling or be an overly close up view of a child’s face. What we have seen to be immensely valuable are tablet or mobile phone stands that can be easily set on a table or even the floor, where the device can be easily angled towards a child’s general area and left stationary. This reduces the need for parents to continually perform camera work.

Some grandparents feel apprehensive or self-conscious about video calling their grandchildren. This is because they may not know a lot about their grandchildren and are afraid of saying the “wrong” thing or annoying their grandchildren. They may not know who their friends are at school in order to ask about them; they may not about their favourite activities; or, they may not feel that a child wants to learn about the grandparents’ cultural heritage. These are all very real issues and sometimes it’s the case that grandparents can have a tough time learning about their grandchildren in a deep enough way to sustain conversations or feel like they are able to really connect over video calls.

Many grandparents talk with a child’s parents to learn about these things so they know what they could talk about. Some parents might be too busy though, or the relationship between a grandparent and their adult child may not be strong and so asking questions that might help them connect with their grandchildren is less possible. There is no easy solution to such problems. Start small. For example, a grandparent could ask a young child to show them their favourite toy, explain why they like it so much and show them what it might do. Or, a grandparent could think about what is unique to their own location when compared to a child’s. Is the weather noticeably different outside? Could the grandparent show a very hot day, a lot of rain or some snow over the video call? Does the grandparent have different pets that the grandchild may not have, or vice versa? Could they easily be shown over FaceTime? These types of acts could be a starting to point to longer term engagements with a child, leading to longer conversations and more things to talk about and show.

Video calling through technologies like FaceTime or Zoom can be a valuable way for grandparents and young grandchildren to connect over distance. It isn’t always easy and grandparents can try to focus conversations around key topics of interest to children. There should also be thought over how to reduce the need for lots of camera work—tablet or mobile phone stands can work very well and placing the camera in a stationary location is a great first step.

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