Many events may separate a parent and child for months or even years: temporary relocations for work reasons, military deployments, incarceration, and most commonly divorce & separation. In these situations, maintaining quality contact between the parent and the child is important to both of their well-being.

Prerequisites to quality contact include:

  • Achieving the necessary amount and frequency of contact (some developmental research suggest that this should be daily or every other day)
  • Maintaining awareness and expressing interest in the child's life
  • Engaging the child in as large a variety of contexts as possible (in particularly, in both play and care activities)

Problems with status quo: 

  • Difficult to keep the child engaged or find topics to seed the conversation
  • Phone is most common, but children lack the computational competencies to benefit fully from audio-only communication
  • Videoconferencing is promising, but not used routinely -- still requires assistance from a co-located adult to initiate and maintain a session
Both the phone and videoconferencing suffer from a similar weakness: attempting to engage the child through conversation rather than activity. However, children usually spend less than a 1 hour/week participating in household conversation, so we cannot expect them to stay engaged for significantly longer when talking to a remote parent.


We chose to focus on synchronous communication because we saw a gap in the previous work -- most other research looks at ways of exchanging messages asynchronously. Our requirements were informed by our exploration of the previous work, related literature in family sociology and child development, and our own formative interviews with parents and children in separated families.

Requirement 1: Add Visual Channels for Communication

The most common theme reported by both parents and children in our study was dissatisfaction with audio-only communication. During the “middle childhood,” children are still developing the conversational competencies to interpret irony, humor, and fantasy. Providing multiple channels and modalities for communication, particularly video, supports the interaction by affording additional cues for the child.

Requirement 2: Function without a Co-Located Adult’s Help 

Videoconferencing was not used regularly by the families we interviewed, because the system is complex enough to require a co-located adult’s involvement to arrange a chat session. Additionally, some parents saw it necessary to supervise videoconferencing, since the child could potentially be contacted by or contact a stranger. Our goal is designing a dedicated communication system with a minimal control interface that reduces the need for a co-located adult to assist the child with setting up and maintaining the connection.

Requirement 3: Support a Wide Variety of Play Activities

Keeping the child engaged and seeding conversation were two major challenges reported by parents. We seek to support engagement by leveraging activities that the parent and child are already used to doing together. We emphasize the system’s ability to support a variety of activities, rather than incorporating interfaces for specific games or requiring specific accessories.

Requirement 4: Provide Opportunities for Care Activities

There is strong evidence that instrumental involvement of both parents correlates strongly with positive outcomes for children. Many care activities require physical presence; however, there is a clear opportunity for remote instrumental care in providing homework assistance. The challenge to us as designers is to afford transitions between the physical artifacts of homework that the child possesses (e.g., textbook, worksheet) and digital versions of these artifacts which the parent can view and annotate.

Inspirations from Our Interviews

We interviewed 5 children, 5 co-located, and 5 non-residential parents from 10 different divorced families about their experiences (see Yarosh, Chew, & Abowd 2009 below). A few things really stuck with us...

One child drew this when asked to come up with a magical object to help him stay in touch with his dad. It's a holographic system where, at the push of a single button, his dad would appear projected in the living room and his voice would sound over the speakers.

Another child drew this magic door... This tiny magical door in his room would make coming over and saying good night as easy as turning the handle.

Some parent quotes: 
  • "She really doesn't like talking on the phone.  I can't say I like it much either ... she's not actually being authentic to the way she usually communicates."
  • "I'd like to have something to talk to her about, because we don't have any common point of reference…"
  • "I get a lot by just looking at her face … her ability to see my expression, and her ability to remain connected with doing something that is fun.”
  • " would be a special linked device ... it would be something between children and parents."

For More Information...

Yarosh, S., Chew, Y.C., and Abowd, G.D. Supporting Parent‐Child Communication in Divorced Families. International Journal of Human Computer Studies 67, 2 (2009), 192-203.