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Talking Heads: Teens Chat via Video

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Violetta Norrie, 11, video-chatted with her friend Sasha Kolomasky, 11, inset. Once dismissed as a potentially lewd distraction for the tech-savvy, video chatting has increasingly insinuated itself into American homes. (Courtesy of Tina Kolomasky)

As she moved about her Montclair, N.J., house getting ready for work, Tina Kolomasky had no idea that she was being watched. Her daughter Sasha, 11, sat eating breakfast at her usual spot in front of the computer. Nothing seemed out of the ordinary.

“Then I heard a tiny little voice say, ‘Is that your mom?’ ” Kolomasky recalled. “I turned around and saw a little girl eating a bagel.” (“It was a pie,” Sasha later corrected.)

“It was like 8:30 in the morning,” Kolomasky said.

Before that moment, Kolomasky hadn’t realized that her daughter used video chat to talk to her friends--and to eat breakfast with them. “It was a total shock to me. You can have virtual friends now in your home,” Kolomasky said. “You walk into the room and suddenly there’s another person in there. It’s like a window.”

Once dismissed as a potentially lewd distraction for the tech-savvy, video chatting has increasingly insinuated itself into American homes. While no firm numbers are available to document its rise, interviews with parents, children and college students suggest that as technological barriers have all but disappeared, the practice has become as easy as making a phone call and, for some, just as common.

“We’re on a clear trajectory toward integrating video into everyday life,” said Mary Madden, a senior research specialist at the Pew Internet and American Life Project. “The changes in the hardware have had a big impact on what people are willing to do.”

“I just used Skype this morning to talk to a group of students in Tampa, Fla.,” she added, referring to the popular video-chat and online-phone service.

Many new computers now come equipped with built-in Web cameras. At the same time, instant-messaging programs, the primary mode of communication for many young people, enable users to invite each other to video-chat at the click of a button.

“Not everyone has the capabilities,” video chatter Nona Schamus, 14, wrote in an e-mail. “But the friends I have who do have video chatting do it almost the whole time they’re logged into IM.”

Most families set up their computers in a shared space like the living room or kitchen, according to a study by the Pew Internet and American Life Project. As a result, some parents say, having their children’s friends present via video makes them act differently around the house, because they feel they have to be on “guest behavior” nearly all the time.

But their children do not seem to have registered the change.

“I don’t think it affected the way my parents acted around the house,” Nona said, “because I would never video-chat with my parents in the same room.”

Video chatting has also become an acceptable form of communication in popular culture. In September, Justin Timberlake told Oprah Winfrey that he uses video iChat to talk to his girlfriend, Jessica Biel. “I do it with my friends, as well,” he said, “just to have a conversation back and forth. It just makes you feel closer.”

Brian Williams, the NBC News anchor, told a group of students at Columbia University that he frequently video-chats with his daughter at college. “I love it. I can take the laptop down and show her her dog,” Williams said, miming the motion he described.

“All of my friends at college chat with their parents,” said Rachel Tashjian, 18, a sophomore at Bryn Mawr College. They may all be doing it, but they’re not all at ease with communicating in live video. “People who are my age use it tongue in cheek, knowing that it’s weird,” Tashjian said. “Like, my friend will appear with a mask on. We try to make it less awkward.”

As with other new communication technologies, acceptance of video chat is often related to the age of the person doing the chatting. What may be strange and new for the college student can be perfectly acceptable to the preteen.

“It’s become a replacement for the phone--and for the friend next door,” said Mia Norrie, mother of Violetta, 11, who may or may not have eaten a pie during her breakfast video chat with Sasha. “It just appeared one day, and she just loved it. She treats it exactly like the phone.”

Anne Kim, 14, said she often uses video chat to do homework assignments with friends. “It’s a lot easier to talk to people and explain stuff if you can see them,” she said. She doesn’t feel self-conscious about appearing on-camera, she said, because she only video-chats with her friends.

Parents and their children are generally sanguine about the presence of this new virtual “window.” In fact, parents are often the ones introducing their children to video chatting, according to Danah Boyd, a fellow at Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society.

“It’s the classic Dad-or-Mom-is-away use,” she said. “In the past, they would make a phone call, and now it’s video chat.” Boyd predicts that in the future the technology will be most popular among children and the elderly, for whom instant messaging is difficult or impossible.

“I use it to talk to my friend’s 8-year-old kid,” Boyd said. “But when we’re on, we just laugh. We call it giggle-vision.”

But Boyd doubts that video chatting will become as popular with teenagers as instant messaging. “Just because the technology is there doesn’t mean they’re going to use it,” she said. “Teenagers will always experiment, but it doesn’t mean they’ll keep with it.”

E-mail: jdg2130@columbia.edu