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Family Communication: Then and Now

Skype, Facebook and mobile phones have changed the way we stay in touch


Long Lost Relatives

Then: When family members emigrated to the "Wild West," another country or continent, those left behind knew they might never see the adventurers again. Letters were few and far between and could take months to arrive. Many relatives lost contact and entire branches of families were disconnected, making it very difficult to maintain family ties and history.

Now: If a family member loses touch, it's probably because he wants to. Relatives have the possibility of finding a land line, getting Internet access or using a mobile phone from almost anywhere in the world. According to the International Telecommunication Union, in 2010 the number of people subscribing to mobile services will exceed 5 billion — that's over 70% of the world population. Wherever 21st century pioneers venture, they don't have many excuses for not making contact.

 Jim Craigmyle/Corbis

Recent AARP research finds that among those ages 50 and older who use social networking sites, over one-third are connected to their grandchildren.

First Phone

Then: Young adults got their first phone number on the momentous occasion of moving into the first home of their own. Many of us didn't have our own phone number until we were 21 or older. It was a sign of independence and a rite of passage into adulthood, and the excitement was more about having our own number than the type of phone. We had answering machines instead of "apps."

Now: Having a phone of one's own is not just for adults anymore. According to a recent Pew Research Study, 75 percent of 12- to17-year-olds own mobile phones. Even younger children are connected these days. Manufacturers make and target the devices specifically at the youth market, and 98 percent of parents whose teens have wireless phones say it is for safety reasons — they can always be in touch. It is less about the phone number and more about the bells and whistles that come with the phone — the color, the accessories and, most important of all, the multimedia "apps."

Grandparents and Grandchildren

Then:  Grandparents knew what was going on in their grandchildren's lives because they lived around the corner. Intergenerational exchanges about school, friends, activities and interests happened naturally every day as care was provided and meals were shared.

Now: Whether grandparents live nearby or far away, they are joining Facebook, MySpace or other social networking sites to keep up with their grandchildren. Recent AARP research finds  that among those ages 50 and older who use social networking sites, over one-third are connected to their grandchildren. A quick "status" one-liner will let a grandparent know when a grandchild aced a test and a virtual pat on the back can be posted within minutes. Teens would rather text than talk. I hear from many grandparents who are learning to send text messages because their grandkids are accustomed to communicating through texting, rather than talking on landlines. They say it may not be the same as in-person, but it gets results on a daily basis, so they are willing to adapt.

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