Monday, March 20, 2006

Virtual visits

Yesterday's NYT SundayStyles provides us with another compelling research question: when the best interest of children is concerned, what is enough to make a successful "virtual visit" with a distant parent? In this article, opinions are exchanged as to the value of internet-enabled contact (including webcams, instant messaging, emailing, etc.) as a supplement to and/or substitute for F2F visits between children and divorced parents. (See InternetVisitation for more news, articles, definitions, and how-tos.) There's a definite legal angle to the article, with much discussion of custody agreements that include (or don't) allowances for virtual visits as counting for "real" visits.
As the legal system begins to acknowledge the potential benefits of technology in bridging the physical and emotional distance caused by divorce and separation, more families are experimenting with computer-assisted custody sharing.

Although any separating couple can opt for virtual visits in their custody agreement, debate surrounding the issue is unfolding on the state level as advocates push to have the option spelled out in state laws in order to broaden awareness of the practice and enable judges to grant such visits where they see fit.
Though most people in the article talk about the good things for parents who have already moved away - a webcam session is more satisfying than a phone call - there are also arguments made that allowing parents to visit their children virtually will encourage parents to move away, because it relieves them of the responsbility to be around.
"The danger is that it will become a substitute for real time," said David L. Levy, chief executive of the Children's Rights Council, based in Hyattsville, Md., which advocates for children affected by divorce and separation. "Virtual time is not real time. You can't virtually hug your child or walk your child to school. We don't want this to be seen as an excuse to encourage move-aways."

The Utah and Wisconsin regulations specify that virtual visits should be used as a supplement to, not a substitute for, traditional visits. The Wisconsin bill also specifies that virtual visits should not be used to justify a custodial parent's relocation. The laws define "electronic communication" as contact by video conference, e-mail, instant message, telephone or other wired or wireless technology.

"I think that most judges understand that children require physical one-on-one contact with the absent parent," said Cheryl Lynn Hepfer, president of the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers.
Which raises the question: how closely can technology approximate "real time" contact, and how closely does it need to in order to provide the kind of interaction that young children need with their parents? This isn't so much linguistic in nature, but issues like nonverbal cues, technological aspects of online conversation - delayed response, for instance - would be important if you really wanted to figure this out.

Anyway, I just thought it was another interesting and important real-world issue that makes our interests relevant. This message brought to you by the Committee to Make Academics Matter (CMAM).

damn it, leave me in my ivory tower.

i'm really impressed that this idea has made it all the way to the court system - i'd love to follow this up and see what they end up deciding, since this is just another part of the massive discourse on how 'real' internet communication is (and man, i hate that discourse).
"This isn't so much linguistic in nature, but issues like nonverbal cues, technological aspects of online conversation - delayed response, for instance - would be important if you really wanted to figure this out."

i think it can be very much linguistic in nature. if over time, people can be comforted by someone's online writing style (i'd like to say "idiolect" :| ), then will there be (or are there now) people) people who find it healthier (and happier) to read a smilie rather than see someone smile?
The hair on the back of my neck always gets prickly when people talk about online communication not being "real." Grrrr. Anyway...this seems to be a little but too much concern a little too soon; I think people who want to shirk parental duties will find a way regardless of availalble technology, and it may even be possible that a parent who would've otherwise dropped out of a child's life completely might stay in touch more with CMC. Maybe, we'd need actual research, as opposed to speculation (by the media) to find out. Also, there is no reason to assume that just b/c people are using web chats, SMS, IM, etc., to stay in touch with distant kids, that they are *not* using the phone or F2F; and we do have research from other areas that shows that at least in some cases, CMC actually adds to the total maount fo communication, rather than taking away from F2F. Anyway, it's a topic for research, maybe before rushing into things with lots of legislation. /rant

As far as the idea of online style, I tikn there's somethign to that, but I've had a theory for a why that social presence theory, which tries to account for how much a given medium makes people feel like they are "really there" with their interlocutor, needs to be amended to include consideration, possibly of style, but also of past experience with the interlocutor. I.e., I can read an email from my husband and basically "hear" his voice as I read it, with his inflections, sarcasm, etc., probably in part b/c I am familiar with his writing style, but also just b/c of how well I know him and how he talks. I don't email with my mom a lot, but I can still hear her voice in my head with her emails, because I know how she would say it if she were actually talking to me F2F. So I think the presence, or how "real" the communication feels, is in part a function of how familair you are with the person you are communicating with, as well as how much experience you have with the medium, etc. Now, it may still not be the same thing as getting a hug, but I just don't think we can make across the board statements that such-and-such medium is defacto not "real" or "not real enough," without being a lot more precise about what these terms mean.

Ok, that kind of turned into a rant too. Oh well!
I agree with the influence that knowing someone FTF has on picking up of their linguistic subtlties (sarcasm, anger, jokes, etc.). but, i also think it's possible to develop an understanding of someone's subtlties without ever knowing them FTF. i have a swiss friend that i met online a couple years ago and i'm very much able to understand the subtlties in his language use, even when he doesn't mark them overtly (with emoticons or pseudo-HTTP markers like /rant). how am i able to do this? part of it is that i feel like i know him and i'm able to make some kind of connection between his writing style and this knowledge of him as a person: his humor, the kinds of topics that he takes seriously, his likes and dislikes, his outlook on life, etc.). so is it the fact that we know people FTF that allows us to pick up on their subtlties, or is it the fact that we know them, regardles of this was developed online or FTF?
oh, and about the whole "real" thing... i've found that many people who have much stronger online relationships than FTF relationships liberally make use of IRL to distinguish between the two spheres of interaction. i'm not sure what to think of this, but you'd think that they'd be the ones rejecting the real/fake dichotomy and not perpetuating it by using IRL.
i'm totally fascinated with the whole concept of 'online boyfriends/girlfriends' (though only academically, wink). the impression i get from people who engage in this along the lines of what josh said, that you do get to know the intricacies of a partner's online communication styles, and in very different ways than you might if the relationship was primarily offline. actually, having been in a long distance relationship during my first years of college, i can kind of vouch for this, though i'm sure the scale is different in the ways kris suggested.

saying 'i love the way you laugh' has a counterpart in 'i love the way you use that smiley with the zero in it' in these types of relationships, i'd argue. i'm not sure if this argument fits in completely with the original thread (what was the original thread?), but here it is.
to what Josh said above, about being able to hear someone without the F2F intereaction at all, I find that very true in my research, which deals with communities of people who generally don't interact offline, yet interact daily and are very close friends. They can still get each other's jokes, inflections, etc. It's just a result of repeated contact and learning how to translate their typing style to verbal ones.
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