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Family Communication: Then and Now

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

The things families talk about — and the reasons they stay in touch — probably haven't changed much over the decades. What has evolved dramatically, however, is the way that generations stay in touch.

See also: Should you "friend" your kids?

Technology has changed the landscape of family communication — much of it in very positive ways. I recently talked to a grandmother who told me about a birthday "visit" from her granddaughter, who is stationed in Afghanistan with the U.S. Army. The two chatted via a webcam on a laptop computer. Just think how difficult it would have been 25 years ago for a soldier to wish anyone happy birthday. 

Here are some of the changes I've noticed. Read my observations, and then add your comments in the Tell Us What You Think box below to share your "then and now" stories.


Family Gatherings

Then: When families assembled for events such as weddings, family reunions, holidays or graduations, only nearby relatives — or long distance relatives who could afford to make the trip — could participate. Those who couldn't be there might have sent a congratulatory telegram, and then waited for a letter describing the gathering and, if they were lucky, a photograph.

Now: With smartphones and webcams, family members can join the gathering no matter where it takes place. Look around at a graduation ceremony and you'll see people holding up their mobile phones so long-distance relatives can hear or even see via video. Weddings and holiday gatherings include "virtual" guests who can see the beautiful bride, the steaming turkey or the Fourth of July fireworks through a webcam. Family reunions can even include overseas relatives.

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.

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.

Tips for staying in touch »

Military Families

Then: Soldiers in WWII who were deployed overseas could wait weeks to send and receive handwritten letters with family. Some families actually received letters from soldiers months later — even after the war ended. Soldiers were disconnected from family activities, and some even became fathers without seeing their child until they returned home. "V-mail" (Victory Mail), an early use of technology in which letters were photographed so they took less space when shipped back to the States, speeded up mail delivery. The film was flown overseas, then printed and mailed free. V-mail shortened the time for mail delivery from up to a month for a ship to reach the United States to as little as 12 days via air. That was quick back then! Letters were saved and treasured, and are now shared across the generations.

Now: E-mail has taken the place of V-mail. Soldiers deployed to Iraq, Afghanistan or other overseas stations frequently have instant connections with family via the Internet. E-mails are sent back and forth about daily activities, and soldiers in many locations can use mobile phones to talk and send photos on the spot. Web cameras make it possible for mom or dad to see their children grow, and even read them a bedtime story regularly. While soldiers still feel far away from home, they more often are able to connect with family in "real time."

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