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In Depth

Technology

Family ties

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.

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