Remember when you talked to your own grandparents (about the weather) once a week, at best? Today a video conference call (or a Google hangout or a Skype visit) can help grandchildren and grandmas and grandpas with better-quality chats.
To find out how family members in different cities can use technology to keep in close touch, I talked with Chip Donohue, dean of distance learning and continuing education and director of the Technology in Early Childhood Center at the Erikson Institute. Excerpts:
Why is it a good idea to use technology to keep in touch?
The devices enable communication. Grandchildren today were born digital. If the grandparents are using a smart phone to communicate and check email, they're holding onto a sophisticated tool that can connect them to the grandkids in a way that the grandkids are very native with. In my own experience, watching my own kids [who are 25 and 22] connect with their grandfather, they're so thrilled that he's making the effort, that he's found a way to see some photographs on Facebook and use email and text messages. It's short little bits. It's not a long letter or long phone call because that's not the way this generation communicates. A text message is very different than not communicating at all.
What about the video chats?
The real powerful story to me is Skyping and Google Hangouts, webcams that allow grandparents to see grandchildren. They're free, and they're easy to use.
You mentioned your kids keeping in touch with their grandfather through technology.
My daughters' grandfather is 82. He certainly was born before personal computers and was not a technological person. He's learned how to use Facebook and communicate with them that way. He sees a little more about their lives. They are thrilled to communicate with him in that way.
How can scared-of-technology grandparents get started?
The first tip is to sit down in real time and have them show you how to do it. There's an amazing connection with, "Let me show you how this works." If your grandchildren are far away, and you never get to see them, this tip doesn't work.
But you could do it over a Thanksgiving visit, right?
When there is an opportunity, let them be your technology teachers.
What if the grandkids are very young?
There's a famous line from one of the Marx brothers. "This is so simple a 5-year-old could do it. Could someone find me a 5-year-old?" This is so obvious and easy for these younger kids. Part of my message is really that willingness to try to stay connected. They'll give you all the help you need. I would look in your community for where there are free resources. If you're an Apple user, there are free workshops at Apple stores that are great.
What do you say to technology-resistant grandparents?
The hook for grandparents is communication and a way to stay in touch with the grandchild. You're sitting there with this amazing piece of technology that will help you buy plane tickets to go see your grandchildren – whatever. When they have reasons to use technology as a tool that makes their lives easier, communication easier, they're hooked. Grandparents who figure out how to go on Facebook or Skype with their grandchild are at the front end of a really exciting world of technology.
What if grandparents worry about little ones spending too much time staring at screens?
There's lots of opposition to use of screens and technology for children 2 and under. What we're saying is if there's no technology for children under 2, you can't have the child sit on the parents' lap and Skype with grandpa. I'm saying tha makes the case for why appropriate use, limited use, is appropriate for young kids. If we have a digital camera, and we take pictures at a family gathering, if we believe no screens, I can't show it.
What about the American Academy of Pediatrics recommendation that kids under 2 get no screen time?
They're discouraging screen use for kids under 2. It's not saying no. It's saying it's up to the teacher or parents or grandparent to understand limits and appropriate use. It's not the iPad. It's what the child's doing on the iPad, with the iPad.
What about parents and grandparents who worry about a slippery slope?
We should be concerned with it. The concern should not transfer into therefore, no technology. These are tools they're watching their parents use, their grandparents use. To say, "Let's sit on my lap, and let's Skype with grandma and grandpa — let's look at the pictures we took when grandma and grandpa were here," that's very different from hanging the iPad in the back of the car.
Should grandparents buy iPads and other high-tech devices for kids?
I think of them using the technology, not needing to own it. These are really important conversations for grandparents and parents to be having. We have these tools that help us communicate. Is this something we can do for the family, or is this better left as is?
So grandparents should talk to the parents before they give an iPad, just like they should talk to them before they give a puppy?!
That's a great analogy. The thought that this is a great gift idea without thinking through the implications of technology in the lives of children is not a good idea. If there's agreement on everybody's part that the child is old enough and can handle this, and it can be a tool for their learning and schoolwork, then we could have that conversation. I would want to defer to the parents.
What about the old weather conversations with grandparents?
Now you can know what the weather is there before you connect by Skype! "We went online, and we went to the Weather Channel app, and we found it's sunny there." You can have an interesting conversation with the grandkids because you've done some homework. I would not stop writing wonderful letters and birthday cards because kids love to receive those. Don't let go of the traditional ways of showing you care and you're connected, but find some new ways.
What about social media etiquette for parents and grandparents?
If a child has "friended" you, the last thing they really want you to do is be posting mom messages or grandparent messages all the time.
But overall, technology makes it much easier for grandkids, parents, and grandparents to stay close, right?
We worry about families not living near each other, but these devices can bridge that gap. It's going to create new and stronger connections in ways that can be nothing but healthy.
For more stories about grandparenting, read: