SAN FRANCISCO — Babysitting used to go something like this: A local teenager comes over to the house after school to play with the kids, then tucks them into bed and spends the remainder of the evening texting from the sofa. All so the parents can unwind after a long week of working in offices by eating and drinking in a crowded restaurant.
Now, babysitting is something that happens over a Zoom or FaceTime call during the day, usually for an hour or less, a few feet from those same parents. But instead of downing margaritas and laughing, they’re taking conference calls, catching up on emails, helping their other kids with home schooling, or just locking themselves in the bathroom for a quick cry.
Over the past two months, millions of Americans have discovered the impossibilities of simultaneously working, parenting, and teaching full time from home. To help ease the strain, they’ve had to get creative with more screen time of all kinds. Now some parents are paying people to spend time with their children virtually.
They’re asking their usual sitters whether they can hire them to keep kids busy over video. On Care.com, a marketplace for caregivers from nannies to health aids, a handful of workers are updating their profiles to say “virtual only.” Existing babysitting services are training their child-care workers on techniques to keep kids engaged over screens, and new companies are popping up to offer virtual-only sitters.
“It’s not like you’re watching a show or something that isn’t tuned in to you. It’s a living person on the other side that’s reading your cues, seeing if you’re interested or not interested,” said Jennika Aronowitz, a 44-year-old mother of three who has used video babysitters for her youngest child.
Aronowitz works as a real estate developer in Los Angeles, now entirely from home, and dedicates part of her mornings to helping her 6-year-old kindergartner. But about once a week when she needs to catch up on work, she sits him down in front of a laptop in the living room so a professional babysitter can play and chat with him over Zoom. She says it’s refreshing for them to interact with someone outside the immediate family and to get 100 percent of an adult’s attention.
She goes through a high-end service out of Miami called the Babysitting Company, which touts its “curated” child-care offerings in major cities. It’s still offering some in-person babysitting, with new rules and safeguards for the novel coronavirus but has transitioned many of its sitters to virtual sessions. The company charges $36 for a 45-minute video session, and clients must pay for four hours minimum, to be used at different times.
“If you would have told me this is something we’d be offering, I’d never have believed it. It’s such a personal-contact-based profession,” said Rachel Charlupski, founder of the Babysitting Company.
When a sitter can’t be there in person to move around and take part in physical play, keeping a child’s attention is tricky. The Babysitting Company quickly retrained its prescreened sitters, many of whom specialize in topics such as yoga or languages. Each sitter makes an advance plan for how they’ll spend the video time based on the kids’ age and interests, and it can include art projects, singing, meditation, Legos or dance. Often, the kids have their own ideas. One 4-year-old recently spent his entire 45 minutes bringing toy food to the camera and pretending to feed his sitter, Charlupski said.
At first, the company offered virtual babysitting for kids 5 and older but has since done a session for a child as young as 2½ years old, which worked. Still, she’s careful to manage parents’ expectations. Sessions can go up to an hour but she doesn’t recommend much longer.
Families have been radically rewriting their screen-time rules during the pandemic to get through the day, allowing far more Netflix and YouTube than they did before. Childhood development experts agree that it’s fine to be less stringent about how long kids are in front of screens now and that parents should give themselves a break. But they’re also pointing out that not all screen time is the same. Something like a video call can be much better for a child than passively watching television or playing a game.
To research this story — and to get enough quiet time to actually write it — I tested Zoom babysitting on my own 3- and 6-year-olds at home. Through an old Macbook laptop on the floor, sitter Victoria Rodriguez, a nursing student, gamely looked at their toys, asked questions they sometimes answered, drew with them, sang “Baby Shark” and did some yoga moves. Though more-involved activities such as origami never took off, Rodriguez managed to keep them entertained for the full 45 minutes. The hardest part, she said, is bringing them back when they walk out of the camera’s range.
When Erin Upton-Cosulich got an email about virtual babysitting from UrbanSitter, another child-care service, she immediately thought of doing something similar with her regular babysitters. Her 3-year-old son has taken to doing pretend play over video while his parents work from home in the same room. It doesn’t always keep him occupied for the desired two hours, says Upton-Cosulich, and if he’s tired or anxious, he prefers his parents. However, when it works, it helps her get things done.
“I can do freelance writing and editing work from home, often with the same level of focus and productivity that I achieve when I’m alone in the house,” Upton-Cosulich said via text message, unable to speak on the phone because her child required her attention.
One of her sitters is Alycia Bennett, an intelligence and risk consultant in Columbia, Maryland, whose work has been reduced because of the pandemic. A babysitter for more than 10 years, the 28-year-old reads Upton-Cosulich’s son books over Zoom by screen-sharing from the digital library Epic. He tells her about his snacks or plays her a song on his toy piano. She quickly realized that keeping his attention over a screen is tricky and requires a certain skill set, such as knowing how to own the conversation and navigate awkward pauses.
“It is a viable option if you’re willing to be a little bit unorthodox and give it a try,” said Bennett. “But going into anything, especially during covid, I would have incredibly not-high expectations. They might just wander off and go eat a graham cracker.”
The demand for virtual babysitting might increase as the school year, in its mostly virtual form, comes to an end next month and parents who have to work are faced with even less help over the summer. Stephanie Africk, a stay-at-home mom in Boston with four kids, sees it as a business opportunity.
She launched a site called SitterStream three weeks ago and has a team of 38 virtual babysitters she’s found through referrals, whom she matches with parents. The company charges $15 for a half-hour and $22 for an hour of video-sitting, and Africk says she’s already had a few hundred requests for sessions. They’ve made a book of age-appropriate activities that sitters can do with the kids that don’t require buying any special supplies, such as making their name out of dried pasta and glue.
“People use this service differently from a babysitter,” said Africk. While before the pandemic, the commitment for a sitter was a few hours, a virtual sitter can be booked for shorter periods of time throughout the day — just long enough to get some housekeeping or work done or even take a shower.
Parents are also always nearby for virtual sessions, which are not a replacement for adult supervision. Aronowitz stays in earshot when her son is video chatting, and the Babysitting Company sitters make sure to have parents’ cellphone numbers in case there’s an issue. Upton-Cosulich or her husband are always a few feet away from their child and the computer.
For sitter Bennett, the option to virtual babysit is a way to earn money but also a bright spot in her day during a difficult time.
“It’s really refreshing to talk to a kid, because kids obviously aren’t going to talk about COVID-19,” said Bennett. “He’s 3, he’s going to be like, ‘I found this dinosaur toy.’ It’s a much-needed mental break; it’s really helpful.”