Last Updated August 21, 2006
Some parents send their kids off to college or university in September, don't expect to see or hear from them again until Christmas, and don't seem to mind. Others can't let go.
If you're in the latter group, you already know, or soon will, that keeping in touch when your kids are half way across the country (or the world) can be tricky and expensive. It doesn't have to be, though. If you're willing to embrace the technology they already use, it can actually be easy, cheap — and a lot of fun.
When my daughter was at university in England two years ago, for example, I finally got instant messaging (IM), the ubiquitous internet text messaging technology. We chatted almost daily using MSN Messenger, a free service from Microsoft.
With IM, you type a brief message on your computer, click the Send button, and a few seconds later you'll see the other person's response. It sounds simple, like speeded up e-mail, but it works. It was a lifesaver for my family.
Parents, ask your kids about IM — they all use it. You'll need to download free software over the internet and install it on your computer, but after that it's as easy to use as e-mail. The software lets you maintain a list of "buddies," people you chat with all the time, and even tells you when they're online and available to talk. Initiate a conversation by double-clicking on a person's name and typing your message in the window that pops up.
My daughter and I also had webcams, which are small, inexpensive ($20 to $150) digital video cameras that plug into your computer. Over a distant, heavily used internet connection such as the one at her school, the video quality wasn't great — more like a slide show — but at least we could see each other as we chatted. The faster your internet connection, the better the video.
MSN and other free consumer IM services, including Yahoo! Messenger and AOL Instant Messenger, let you speak with your buddies. You can use a webcam microphone and the speakers attached to your computer, but the better way is to plug a telephone headset into the computer, usually into a USB port. Headsets cost anywhere from a few dollars to about $70.
If you're going to use IM as a free phone service (an excellent idea for those on a tight budget), consider using Skype. It's the best I've tried. With a good connection — never guaranteed over the internet because of congestion and contention for network capacity — Skype sounds better than a regular phone. And it's almost always good enough to carry on a normal conversation, even when talking to somebody on the other side of the globe.
Skype works much like other IM services — you download and install software from skype.com, plug in a computer headset, and initiate calls by double-clicking on a person's name in your buddy list. You can even text chat if you want. Cost: zero.
Earlier this year, Skype added video to its bag of tricks. Now you can plug in a webcam and set up a videoconference. The audio quality may not be quite as good as in voice-only calls, and don't expect TV-quality video.
Unlike most IM services, Skype also lets you call from a PC to a regular phone. Your kids could use their desktop computer to call your home phone, for example. Skype is providing the PC-to-phone service, which it calls SkypeOut, at no cost within North America until the end of the year. After that, it will go back to costing a couple of cents a minute.
If you must talk to your kids, rather than just text chatting, and you don't want to take a chance on sometimes dodgy Skype connections, consider subscribing to a VoIP (Voice over Internet Protocol) phone service such as those from Primus and Vonage. They're a little cheaper than installing a phone company line at your student's digs — the VoIP companies estimate up to 25 per cent cheaper — and more convenient for your kid than using the phone at the end of the hall.
The VoIP company will send you a book-sized (or smaller) electronic box that your student can plug into the high-speed internet service in her dorm room or apartment. (She will certainly have high-speed service in a dorm these days, and will need you to supply it at an apartment for study and research.) You plug a regular telephone into the VoIP box and it works like any other phone — dial and talk. Voice and connection quality are comparable with standard phone company service.
The neat thing is that the VoIP company can probably give the student a telephone number in the same area code as your home phone, so every call your kids make home or you make to them is "local" — no long distance. Even better, the student can take the VoIP box with them wherever they go, anywhere in the world — as long as they have high-speed Internet service, they can plug the box in and it should work.
Communicating directly — by voice, videoconference or text chat — is good, but the kids have found other fun ways to communicate over the internet. You can plug into them too — if they'll let you. Many teens and 20-somethings publish constantly updated personal webpages at sites such as MySpace and Blogger, for example, and participate in "social networking" sites such as FaceBook.
MySpace and Blogger pages can include diary entries and pictures or videos taken with digital cameras. Anybody who knows the webpage address (and sometimes password) can view it. My daughter was a little shy about letting us see her Xanga site (a precursor to MySpace). It was more for her friends, she said, a little edgily.
FaceBook is an example of a new kind of website where people — in this case university and college students — go to meet people with similar interests and backgrounds. If you can get access to someone's FaceBook site, you'll see whom they're talking with, who they know and how they present themselves to the world.
When you think about it, they can go off to school but they really can't get away from you anymore.
- Green machines
- Disk drive: Companies struggle with surge in demand for storage
- Open season: Will court decision spur Linux adoption?
- Analogue TV
- Video games: Holiday season
- Video games: Going pro
- Guitar Hero
- Parents' guide to cheap software
- Working online
- Laptop computers for students
- Technology offers charities new ways to attract donations
- The invisible middleman of the game industry
- Data mining
- Two against one
- The days of the single-core desktop chip are numbered
- Home offices
- Cyber crime: Identity crisis in cyberspace
- Yellow Pages - paper or web?
- Robotics features
- iPhone FAQ
- Business follows youth to new online world
- A question of authority
- Our increasing reliance on Wikipedia changes the pursuit of knowledge
- Photo printers
- Rare earths
- Widgets and gadgets
- Surround Sound
- Microsoft's Shadowrun game
- Dell's move to embrace retail
- The Facebook generation: Changing the meaning of privacy
- Digital cameras
- Are cellphones and the internet rewiring our brains?
- Intel's new chips
- Apple faces security threat with iPhone
- Industrial revolution
- Web developers set to stake claim on computer desktop with new tools
- Digital photography
- Traditional film is still in the picture
- HD Video
- Affordable new cameras take high-definition mainstream
- GPS: Where are we?
- Quantum computing
- What it is, how it works and the promise it holds
- Playing the digital-video game
- Microsoft's forthcoming Xbox 360 Elite console points to entertainment push
- Online crime
- Botnets: The end of the web as we know it?
- Is Canada losing fight against online thieves?
- Malware evolution
- Money now the driving force behind internet threats: experts
- Adopting Ubuntu
- Linux switch can be painless, free
- Sci-fi projections
- Systems create images on glass, in thin air
- Power play
- Young people shaping cellphone landscape
- Digital cameras
- Cellphone number portability
- Barriers to change
- Desktop to internet
- Future of online software unclear: experts
- Complaining about complaints systems
- Canadian schools
- Multimedia meets multi-literacy age
- Console showdown
- Comparing Wii, PS3 and Xbox 360 networks
- Social connections
- Online networking: What's your niche?
- Virtual family dinners
- Xbox 360 console game
- Vista and digital rights
- Child safety
- Perils and progress in fight against online child abuse
- Biometric ID
- Moving to a Mac
- Supply & demand
- Why Canada misses out on big gadget launches
- Windows Vista
- Computers designed for digital lifestyle
- Windows Vista
- What's in the new consumer versions
- Cutting the cord
- Powering up without wires
- GPS and privacy
- Digital deluge
- Consumer Electronics Show
- Working online
- Web Boom 2.0 (Part II)
- GPS surveillance
- Hits and misses: Best and worst consumer technologies of 2006
- Mars Rovers
- Voice over IP
- Web Boom 2.0
- Technology gift pitfalls to avoid
- Classroom Ethics
- Rise of the cybercheat
- Private Eyes
- Are videophones turning us into Big Brother?
- Windows Vista
- Cyber Security
- Video games: Canadian connections to the console war
- Satellite radio
- Portable media
- Video games
- Plasma and LCD
- Video screens get bigger, better, cheaper
- Video games:
- New hardware heats up console battle
- High-tech kitchens
- Microsoft-Novell deal
- Lumalive textiles
- Music to go
- Alternate reality
- Women and gadgets
- High-tech realtors
- The itv promise
- Student laptops
- Family ties
- End of Windows 98
- Browser wars
- Exploding laptop
- The pirate bay
- Stupid mac tricks
- Keeping the net neutral
- PS3 and WII at E3
- Sex on the net
- Calendars, online and on paper
- Google, ipod and more
- Viral video
- Unlocking the USB key
- Free your ipod
- In search of
- Sony and the rootkit
- Internet summit
- Electronic surveillance