Video chat reshapes domestic rituals

[From The New York Times, where the story includes an additional image]

Video Chat Reshapes Domestic Rituals

By Julie Scelfo
December 21, 2011

After nightfall on Tuesday, the Darvick family of Birmingham, Mich., began their Hanukkah rituals, just as they had done for years.

Debra and Martin Darvick set out a tin menorah given to them by long-gone relatives. Their son, Elliot, 27, struck a match and lighted the first candle. And his sister, Emma, 24, joined in a prayer.

But the Darvicks celebrated this centuries-old tradition with a modern twist — the family was in three different cities across the country, but connected by Skype.

“We call it Skypanukkah,” Elliot said of the family’s second year of using the service’s video chat. “Being able to use Skype on a holiday allows me to basically build a memory with my family that I couldn’t have otherwise.”

Though Skype is now eight years old, the software — and others like it, including Apple’s FaceTime and Google chat — has become a regular fixture in a growing number of American homes, providing new ways for families to stay connected in an age where generations are less likely to gather around the table on Sunday afternoons to share a meal.

There are the familiar uses, of course — nieces performing dance routines for their aunts, brothers showing off holiday decorations to cousins, and grandparents meeting new grandchildren, despite being separated by hundreds or thousands of miles.

Yet as Skype becomes a part of everyday life, far-flung families are opening birthday gifts together, reading bedtime stories and even providing brief moments of child care. And rather than just making video calls to catch up, people are using them to share experiences that would otherwise require a plane ticket.

With the proliferation of built-in cameras and microphones on computers and mobile devices, broadband connections and program refinements, an average of 300 million minutes of Skype video calls are made a day globally, an increase of about 900 percent from 2007, according to data provided by the company. Many more calls are made using other popular software programs, like FaceTime and Google chat.

During peak time, Sunday morning in the United States, 30 million people are logged into their Skype account, with half a million simultaneously making video calls, the company said.

This summer, when Jamie Van Houton, 28, moved from Riverside, Calif., to Ohio six months into her pregnancy, her best friend, Tasha Montgomery, 33, worried that her friend would feel lonely in the run-up to childbirth.

“They really didn’t know anyone out there,” Ms. Montgomery said.

In July, Ms. Montgomery decided to give a baby shower using video chat, and enlisted mutual friends in Riverside to bake a brunch dish and join them for the party.

“We set her up on the mantel so she could see everybody,” said Ms. Montgomery, who had mailed Ms. Van Houton a paper banner beforehand. “We had expected the party to be two or two-and-a-half hours, and people ended up hanging out, talking for four or five hours. It was great.”

Ms. Van Houton, who hung the banner behind her so that guests could see it, said she was surprised at how lively her high-tech shower turned out to be.

“I had thought, ‘Oh, this will be fun, but it’s not the same as being there,’ ” Ms. Van Houton said. “But it turned out to be even better,” she said, explaining how friends also took turns talking to her. “I got to connect with everybody one-on-one, more so than if I was there.”

Skype and other similar programs seem custom-built to ease feelings of separation during celebrations and holidays.

In the weeks leading up to Christmas last year, Jessica Hunt, 37, who lives in Eugene, Ore., grew increasingly sad that she and her two children were unable to spend the holiday at her parents’ home in Durand, Wis.

“I felt like such a baby,” said Ms. Hunt, who had separated from her husband several months earlier. “I’m almost 40, and this was the first Christmas I hadn’t been home.”

So they opened presents by Skype instead, and Ms. Hunt said she and her children fell into an easy rhythm.

When her brother and his family unwrapped a large gift from his parents — what turned out to be a new set of luggage to be used for a coming vacation with Ms. Hunt — her spirits lifted.

“It sounds super-cheesy, but it reminded me they were coming and it wasn’t far away,” she said. “And it was all O.K.”

She also noticed another advantage of sharing the holidays over the computer.

“It was the first Christmas where I didn’t feel rushed,” she said. “I didn’t have to travel or worry about packing up the kids. It relieved a lot of stress.”

Video chat is adding more retirees to its fan base, as more senior centers offer classes to teach the elderly how to boot up, sign up and log in.

Elaine Welin, 64, a retired technologist who keeps a laptop on her dining room table near a crocheted doily and a scented candle, often uses the service to drink her morning coffee with one of several friends who live in the same town.

“I get a kick out of that,” said Ms. Welin, who teaches Skype classes at the L. E. Phillips Senior Center in Eau Claire, Wis. “We’ll sit and sip our coffee and just chat. They’ll say ‘What are you wearing Elaine?’ And I’ll say ‘Don’t look! It’s just my old bathrobe.’ ”

Parents of young children have also discovered an unexpected benefit. During a video call with his parents two years ago, Jeremy Rothman-Shore, 36, of Cambridge, Mass., wanted to buy some soup for his wife, Aviva, pregnant with their second child and down with a cold. He asked his parents, Deborah and Robert Rothman of Rochester if they could entertain his daughter, Ayelet, then 2, for the half-hour he estimated it would take him to go to and from a local Asian restaurant.

“My wife was barely able to sit up,” Mr. Rothman-Shore explained. When he returned, Ayelet “was engaged and having a blast.”

“It was so much better than plopping her in front of the TV,” he said. “And my parents were happy as well. It’s not baby sitting in the sense of, ‘Hey, I’ll see you kids in a couple of hours,’ but it’s that extra pair of hands.”

Participating in — and not just hearing about — children’s daily lives seems to be one of video chat’s greatest appeals.

Ms. Welin of Fall Creek, Wis., was tickled when Maleah, her 10-year-old granddaughter in Stevens Point, wanted to show off her bedroom décor. “She said ‘Grandma, I want you to see my new curtains.’ Then she picked up the laptop, turned it outward and walked it all over the room,” Ms. Welin said. “She was so proud.”

Families also use video chat to include others in experiences that, when separated by long distances, they would otherwise miss.

When Leslie Jerkins, 27, and her husband, Jonathan, 31, first learned the sex of their baby during her pregnancy, she organized a group video chat to share the news with relatives in other states. “It took Skype, FaceTime and Google chat to get everybody,” recalled Mrs. Jerkins, who lives in Memphis.

To add to the suspense, they organized a lottery to determine who would get to make the announcement. After drawing the name of Mr. Jerkins’s sister-in-law from a bowl, Mr. Jerkins texted her a photo that said “girl,” and she yelled, “It’s a girl!” to the whole group. “It was mayhem,” Mrs. Jerkins wrote on her blog later that night. “Little nieces Kendall and Kailyn were dancing around with their mommy, ‘A girl! A girl! Just what we wanted!’ ”

Just as video chat helps families celebrate life, it can also help families cope with death.

For more than a decade, Maxine Jackson, 90, a mother of 11 and one of seven siblings in Lansing, Mich., had spoken by phone twice a day to her youngest surviving sister, Selia Mae Basdon, who lived in a small town near St. Louis. Earlier this year, their ritual ended when Mrs. Basdon, who had colon cancer, entered a hospice.

Concerned that his mother wouldn’t have a chance to say goodbye to her younger sister, Jerome Jackson, who goes by J. J., arranged a Skype video chat. “Selia Mae was very ill, and we knew she didn’t have long to live,” he said, adding that his mother had lost two brothers and a sister in the last five years and had been physically unable to pay any of them a final visit.

After a technology-savvy friend did the setup, Mrs. Jackson got to see Selia Mae on a laptop screen on a table in her living room.

“We set it all up, and they were ready on their end, and voilà, we had picture and we had sound,” Mr. Jackson recalled. “And I never will forget the moment because there were about 11 or 12 people gathered in my mother’s living room and kitchen, all kind of waiting for the moment. And I heard my mother say, ‘I see you Mae Mae!’ And tears just came to my eyes.”

While the technology has opened up new opportunities, it has also created an array of complications.

A mother in Vancouver (her name is not appearing here to protect her toddler’s privacy), complained that her ex-husband, who video chats three times a week with their 23-month-old daughter, seemed to believe that such interactions were an adequate form of being a parent. It has “given him an excuse to be an absent father.”

“He can say, ‘Oh yeah, I saw her, she’s doing this and that,’ ” the mother said. “But she has no sense of him. She can’t touch him, she can’t feel him. There’s none of that other sensory experience. He hasn’t seen her in person since she was 3 weeks old.”

Video chat also carries certain risks.

They “can be recorded and can potentially be shared through any other online platform,” said Jill Murphy, editorial director of Common Sense Media. “Your child may not necessarily know that.” The group, a nonprofit for parents, offers a list of video-chatting tips on its Web site, like making sure privacy settings prevent strangers from requesting calls.

“If your kids like an audience,” Ms. Murphy added, “you have to watch out for their behavior, like body parts that can end up on display.”

For all its benefits, Skype and other video chat programs have inevitable limitations.

“There’s no technology that can ever reproduce what it means to be with your children in person,” said Debra Darvick, referring to how, before her family’s Hanukkah Skype gathering, she cooked latkes, but only half her family was there to eat them. “It’s great, and yet, nothing beats having my children in my home, in my arms, celebrating at the same table.”

“As cool as it was,” she added, “it just makes me long for them more.”


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