Skype Connects Families Across the Miles

Time together is the goal of many families during the holiday season. Economic hardship, winter weather, conflicting vacation schedules and even illness can make spending time together difficult. But thanks to new, simple-to-use technology, it is no longer impossible. In fact, it’s not only simple, it’s free.

Ask the Webers. Evelyn and Kurt were gearing up for a difficult time away from their children. “We were leaving last spring for my husband’s third brain surgery in six years. We knew this would be tough on the whole family,” says the Illinois mother of two.

While leaving their children behind would be tough, there was one thing the Webers hoped would make the distance easier. Skype.

Skype is a communication program that allows users to make voice calls over the Internet through their computer. Not only is Skype cost-effective for long-distance calls, in many cases it’s free. Skype also offers video calling, allowing face-to-face calls — a feature that greatly appealed to the Webers.

“We figured Skype was going to help us make the absence less painful. I could even help with homework better by seeing rather than only hearing,” Evelyn says. The family had used Skype before to connect overseas with relatives.

Skype was exactly what they anticipated: a lifesaver. “I even “Skyped” from the [hospital] room and they talked to my husband from his hospital bed,” Evelyn says. She describes the ability to connect face to face as priceless, especially when their anticipated two-week trip turned into almost a month away from their children.

Is Skype just hype?

Far from a fad, Skype now boasts more than 16 million users, is available in 28 languages and is used in almost every country. While some may be slow to break their habits with landline phones and cell phones, the interest in Skype over the last few years has soared, and it is now touted as the most common communication system in the world.

What makes Skype so great? Cost-effective communication was the initial draw. Skype’s downloadable software program is free, and Skype-to-Skype calls are free, too, regardless of world location. Video conferencing is the second biggest appeal. Unlike landlines and cell phones, Skype allows users with webcams to talk face to face, again for no cost.

New services have also made Skype even easier to use, whether your friends or family have the software or not. SkypeIn and SkypeOut allow users to receive and make calls using Skype at significant discounts using calling plans. Other features, including voicemail, text messaging and call forwarding, make Skype even more appealing for families and businesses.

Who uses Skype?

The Weber’s example demonstrates how families are taking advantage of Skype’s unique attributes to stay connected in special circumstances. While more and more families are using Skype on a regular basis, special occasions like holiday calls and birthdays motivate many to get started.

Grandparents can watch children open holiday gifts. Military spouses can read a traditional Christmas bedtime story to kids. Parents can connect with college students stuck at school or studying abroad over a holiday break.

Kristi Mendez, in Illinois, uses Skype to check in with family who live in Nashville. “We use Skype to stay in touch with our parents and so our little boy can ‘see’ them on a regular basis,” Mendez says. “We gave my father-in-law a webcam last year for this birthday and walked them through the Skype download and setup. It’s great…and my little guy loves to ‘call Grandpa on the computer.'”

Julie McCollam, whose husband left for military service for six months, uses Skype to help bridge the distance for her children, ages 3 and 6, while he’s deployed. “Skype has become invaluable to me and my sons,” she says.

Tiffany Dash finds Skype helpful for connecting with her 71-year-old father who doesn’t live near her. “You can miss signs of decline or health issues with a senior if you’re just talking to them on the phone,” she says, adding that she can help her father with numerous tasks thanks to the video feature. “If he had a question about a bill he received in the mail, he could use Skype to show it to me.”

Perks vs. pitfalls

Nothing’s perfect, and for all its perks, there are a few pitfalls and considerations when using Skype.

Calls tied to the computer can limit the mobility of users — something many families find a bit paralyzing. “It’s also not ideal for multitaskers. I do a lot of housework while talking on the phone and, of course, that is impossible with Skype,” explains Vicky Lynch.

Occasional network outages can be frustrating, too. When Marianne Hewitt’s daughter, Kristen, spent a semester in Japan, she and her husband, David, used Skype once a week to connect with her. “While she could not always get interconnect connectivity, when she did and we spoke, the line was so crystal clear we could get every nuance in her voice.”

Most importantly, Skype is not recommended for emergency calls. When calling 911 from a landline, help is dispatched to the area where you subscribe to your phone service. When you call from a cell phone, your mobile signal can identify your location. Skype cannot identify where a call is coming from and is not a replacement for other calling options.

Even if you’re not interested in Skype, it’s important to know how it works, especially if you have children at home. Teens interested in connecting with friends — or meeting new people — can find face-to-face connections, too. Parents need to be sure to talk with teens about connecting with strangers they don’t know, and discuss appropriate behavior when participating in a video call.

Sharon Cindrich is a mother of two, freelance writer and author of A Smart Girl’s Guide to the Internet.

Skype step by step

Skype easy to set up and simple to use. Follow these steps to try it:

What you need:
– A computer with a keyboard and mouse
– An Internet connection (Broadband works best.)
– Speakers or earpieces
– A microphone (Many computers have a microphone built in; however, you can purchase one for a minimal cost at your local electronics store.)
– Skype software: download this program for no cost at
– A friend who also has Skype

What to do:
– Visit the Skype Web site and click the “Download” tab at the top of the page. On the next screen, you’ll see a tab indicating the version for your computer. Click the “Download now” button.
– The download will continue on your computer and give you step-by-step instructions on finishing your download, setting up your account and adding contacts.
– Once you’ve added a contact, select that contact and get ready to connect.

Hints for the Holidays

How to use Skype to share the joy of the season.

– Skype holiday greeting card. Gather around to send a group greeting from the family to a college student stranded over break, to extended relatives whose flight was cancelled due to weather, or to another family across the miles.

– Join the party. Having a holiday meal or open house? Skype in a friend or family member who can’t make it and set up a place where other visitors can pop in to say “hello.”

– Give the gift of gratitude. Once the presents are opened, let the kids Skype grandparents or other relatives to send a face-to-face thank you.

– Share Hanukkah hellos. Plan eight nights of Skype calls to relatives and share special greetings.

– Go a-caroling. That’s right — tune your family in and plan a night of caroling gathered ’round the computer monitor.

Categories: At Home, Family, Family Ties, Home, Relationships