They say home is where the heart is. For many families it’s also where the office, school and daycare center is, too. For parents whose child care options have been upended by COVID-19, virtual babysitting has become a way to get work done or simply take some time for themselves. So what is virtual babysitting? Here's what you need to know before signing up.

HOW DID IT START?

As schools transitioned to online learning and some teachers began communicating with their students via video, parents quickly realized that having another adult interact with their child was a welcome reprieve. In addition, grandparents and other family members could keep children entertained from afar as a way to not only stay in touch, but also give parents an hour or two to themselves. Soon, popular websites that connect parents with reputable care givers, such as Sittercity and Care.com, began offering virtual babysitting.

“Since so much of our social interactions have migrated to the virtual space as a result of shelter-in-place restrictions, it is not a stretch that child care, babysitting, classes and tutoring have made the shift as well,” says Jennie Roe, founder of Cool Head Parenting.

WHAT CAN IT BE USED FOR?

A virtual sitter might read to your child, or play games and do crafts with them. Formerly in-person activities such as dance and gymnastics have also moved online. “My daughter tried a hip-hop class online recently and it was a hit with her,” Roe says. “For kids who are shy and otherwise slow to warm up in group settings, virtual classes are a convenient option to introduce them to new activities.”

In addition, Roe has found virtual lessons to be beneficial for her older daughter who is attending math tutoring sessions and piano lessons remotely. “As a parent, I feel that my daughter gets so much more learning out of the virtual one-on-one tutoring than in the physical center,” she says. “I plan to continue in this format even after shelter in place is lifted.”

HOW MUCH DOES IT COST?

The average national hourly rate for babysitting for 2020 is $17.73 per child, which can give parents a general idea of how much they’ll have to pay for virtual child care. However many of the services that offer virtual sitters are doing so at a lower rate. The cost will also vary by the type of services you’re looking for — tutors or instructors will cost more than a standard babysitter.

For those looking for the most cost-efficient options, Roe encourages reaching out to friends, neighbors or local community sites like Nextdoor to find teenagers or college students looking to make some extra money. Another option is to organize virtual activities that multiple parents chip in for, such as a group arts and crafts lesson. Both should cost less than one-on-one digital time.

DOES IT WORK FOR ALL KIDS?

The effectiveness of virtual babysitting will depend on your child’s age, but Roe believes it works best for children who are on the older side — ideally at least 5 years old. At this age, children are better at focusing and carrying on conversations, which is paramount for a virtual interaction.

IS IT SAFE?

Virtual babysitting can be helpful for keeping children occupied for a short period of time while a parent works close by, within sight and earshot. While traditional babysitting allows the caretaker to physically intervene if a child is doing something unsafe or gets hurt, this of course isn’t possible with virtual babysitting.

“I would not recommend virtual babysitting as a way to free up parents to run errands outside the house,” Roe says. “I would not even recommend it as a way to allow parents to work in another room or in the yard, or to take a nap, shower or bath."

While virtual babysitting may not solve all needs, Roe encourages parents to consider incorporating it into their list of shelter-in-place kid activities. “Virtual babysitting may be the only option some parents have to successfully balance work and home life,” she says. “And parents know that an hour of uninterrupted work time is a gift.”

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