Video chat programs help students keep in touch

Shanika Gunaratna

Kathryn Crabb celebrated her two-year anniversary with her boyfriend somewhat unconventionally – by staring at her computer screen. The Music sophomore was video chatting with her boyfriend, a student 2,000 miles away at Stanford University.

“We both got dressed up,” Crabb said. “He had a jacket on, but at one point he got up to get something and I noticed he had jeans on the bottom.” Her boyfriend even lit candles in his room, though they were out of the camera’s line of vision.

Crabb is part of a growing trend of young people who are using video chatting to keep in touch. With more and more computers equipped with built-in cameras, and Skype video chat software available for free online, many students video chat to maintain relationships across state lines and time zones.

“You feel more connected to someone when you’re actually seeing them,” Crabb said. She and her boyfriend have “date nights” on Skype every Tuesday. They bring dinner to their computers, catch up on their weeks and even complete online crosswords together.

Lauren Scissors, a doctoral student in the Media, Technology and Society Program in the School of Communication, said video chatting provides “a more rich experience” than texting or talking on the phone.

“It’s kind of a neat experience to pick your computer up and turn it around and show your parents and brothers and sister what our dorm room is like or who (your) best friend is,” she said.

But Scissors sees inherent flaws in video chat communication.

“Nuances like facial expressions are sometimes lost when video chatting,” she said. Video chatters can only see each other from the chest up and poor audio quality may cause users to miss vocal inflections. Video chatting also requires extra effort. Few users are always online and therefore have to plan to meet on the Internet.

Video chatting is also somewhat limited to those in close relationships, she said.

Last year Weinberg sophomore Andrea Heyman regularly video chatted with a friend at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland, whom she couldn’t have talked to on the phone. Heyman also video chats with her “tech-savvy” parents who include the family dog in their chats.

Video chatters are especially cognizant of their body language because they simultaneously watch themselves and their partner as they chat, Scissors said. This happens because a lot of video chat programs have a small insert that displays the user as they chat.

“You’re more self-conscious and maybe you wouldn’t do things that you normally would,” Scissors said.

Still, video chatting is a step up from non-face-to-face communication, Scissors said.

A video chatter for two years, Crabb said she also sees a benefit to chatting over the more traditional route of phone conversation.

There’s an emotional advantage to seeing her boyfriend’s face, she said.

“If there is something heavy that comes up, I wait for Skype so I can see his reaction,” Crabb said, adding that it is also easier to resolve an argument.

But maintaining relationships solely through video chatting is difficult, according to a study at the University of Michigan. After studying businesspeople who video conference, the study concluded “trust requires touch.”.

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