Come Christmas, families will gather over dinner, around the tree — and in front of the computer screen.
It’s not a way to be antisocial or to disconnect.
For millions of people whose families are scattered across the country, almost any digital screen can become a window into a holiday celebration via Skype, Google Hangouts or Apple’s FaceTime.
“We all get on Skype and we open our presents together,” said Anthony Deos, whose loved ones live in the United States, Germany and Thailand. “Although we’re not sitting together, we are sitting together.”
It’s a holiday tradition that would’ve been difficult to maintain just a decade ago. But with improvements in Internet technology and widespread adoption of free apps such as Skype and FaceTime, video chatting now comes as naturally as dialing a telephone. All you need is a device with a microphone and a webcam, plus a good Internet connection.
Skype, founded in 2003, was the first online video-chatting platform widely adopted. It could be accessed through a laptop or desktop computer. Google Hangouts and FaceTime came along later. All the apps now make video chatting possible from smartphones and tablets, too.
Skype carries more than 300 billion minutes of video annually. Sometimes, especially when there are international boundaries to cross, it can be easier and cheaper than a traditional phone call. There are no long-distance phone bills, just an Internet connection.
The technology is particularly appealing around the Christmas holiday, said Bill Doherty, professor of family social science at the University of Minnesota.
“This is the one time of year where there is a widespread expectation that we should connect with everybody who is important to us,” he said. “Technology really can help when family members live far away.”
Attending from afar
After Thanksgiving dinner, Moriah Otto’s extended family in Cokato, Minn., huddled together around a laptop in the living room to Skype with Otto, who was in rural Kenya. The connection wasn’t perfect, and the picture was blurry, but it was good enough for her to feel included.
“Being so far away, it’s nice to at least get a glimpse of my family’s Thanksgiving,” she said via Skype. “You’re instantly smiling when you see your parents or your sibling’s face rather than on the phone.”
This wasn’t the Otto clan’s first video chat. They also had a festive Skype date in October so Otto, a University of Minnesota student studying abroad, could be part of the annual family pumpkin carving.
“She got up at 4:15 a.m. her time because she said, ‘I just want to be there,’ ” said Otto’s mom, Lynn Otto. “She was part of it.”
But while technology can help bridge the distance between people, it can’t replace actually being together.
That’s why Deos, who lived in St. Louis Park before going to grad school in New Zealand, considers video chatting “a double-edged sword.”
“You have that connection, but you cannot reach out and touch someone,” said Deos, who also texts and uses social media such as Twitter and Facebook to keep up with family and friends. Sometimes, he said, the “deeper connection” video chatting offers just “makes the disconnect harder.”
In addition, video chats also can be punctuated by glitchy images, audio delays and lost Internet connections.
“There is no perfect substitute for human contact,” said Carol Bruess, professor of family communication at the University of St. Thomas. “While technology has given us a host of exciting tools to help families stay close all year round, it’s for sure not a utopia.”
New video rituals
Still, the perks of video chatting outnumber the drawbacks for regular users.
Julia Rowland, a University of Minnesota student studying in Spain, uses the Google Hangouts app on her Samsung smartphone to connect with her dad in Eden Prairie.
“When I first got here, I walked him around the house,” she said.
For Thanksgiving — her first away from her family — she got to share the scene with her relatives back home.
“It adds those intangibles that don’t come through in text,” said her dad, Randy Rowland.
That chance to take in the environment and facial expressions is especially helpful for chatting with children, said Doherty, who Skypes regularly with his grandchildren in California.
“Young children are generally not great telephone communicators, but they are great video communicators,” he said. “You can have your grandchild do the tour of the Christmas decorations and open presents.”
In the Marino household in Minneapolis, a post-turkey FaceTime chat with the Arizona grandparents is now routine. Dad John Marino chats a bit and then 8-year-old Angelo comes over, armed with a toy catalog.
“He spends a lot more time talking with FaceTime than if he just had to hold a phone,” John Marino said. “He literally flips through the Toys ’R’ Us catalog one page at a time, explaining what he wants for Christmas.”
When it comes time to open those gifts on Christmas, if the grandparents can’t be there in person, they’ll be watching on screen.