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Originally published March 20, 2010 at 2:13 PM | Page modified March 21, 2010 at 12:04 AM

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Texting, live chatting are redefining sense of being together, apart

Text messaging and live video chatting is allowing people to keep in such constant communication that it has begun to radically change the sense of what it means for people to feel together, or alone, or apart

The Kansas City Star

KANSAS CITY, Mo. — A few days ago, Elliot Kort, 22, woke in his Lawrence apartment, yawned, brushed his teeth and greeted his girlfriend, Elyse, in the way he does most every morning.

"Hi, sweetie."

"Hi, baby," Elyse responded. "How did you sleep?"

"It took me a little bit to get there, but I slept OK. How about you?"

"Very well," she told him.

Intimate? Ordinary?

Absolutely.

And yet, experts said, it is that such a conversation is now deemed routine — happening, as this one did, by computer, with Kort electronically chatting with his girlfriend at her apartment in Washington, D.C. — that makes it remarkable.

"It's our morning breakfast table in the digital realm," Kort said.

Cyber-savvy experts view it as more than that. It's an example of how technology — and especially the growth in text messaging and live video chatting — is allowing people to keep in such constant communication that it has begun to radically change the sense of what it means for people to feel together, or alone, or apart.

Researchers have names for it: "connected presence" or "persistent presence," the feeling, through technology, that you are with someone when you are not.

"It's having this sense, this ambient awareness, of your friends or family," said Mary Madden, senior research specialist with the Pew Research Center's Internet & American Life Project. "Even if you're not communicating or interacting, they have a sense of you being there and being OK, just by you being logged on."

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But the boom in constant connections also is raising significant concerns, from fostering poor focus and lack of independence to the difficulty of cutting ties in an era of Facebook "friend" connections.

More privacy questions are expected to arise with the evolution of new phone applications. Foursquare or Gowalla tell people where you are, using GPS satellites.

Some people worry about stalking, domestic violence and being connected to people who are unwanted.

"We are seeing persistent texting," said Parry Aftab, a lawyer and executive director of WiredSafety.org, an Internet safety organization. "People wanting to know where you are at every hour of the day, who you are with. When does it go from, 'I care about you,' to 'I'm a stalker ... ?' There's a thin line from what's reasonable and what's manic."

Narrowing the gap

Technology's role in helping bring people closer is older than the chariot. Trains, planes, telegraphs, telephones have all played roles.

But social scientists said nothing had so narrowed that gap as the rise in technologies — text messages, Skype video chats, Twitter, cellphone access to social-networking sites such as Facebook — that allow people to commune with one another as they walk through their days at anytime and anywhere.

In January, a report on children 8 to 18 showed that 31 percent of second- to fourth-graders have cellphones. By 18, nearly everyone has one. Some 4.1 billion texts are sent each day in the United States, at least four times what it was in 2007.

Last year, users of Skype, which offers instant messaging and video conferencing, logged onto their computers to make 3.1 billion minutes of calls, up 44 percent from the year before. Of all Skype users, slightly more than one-third were talking face to face over live video.

A few results of such constant connection:

• Going to college no longer means kids are on their own.

"There are parents who are now sending their college kids wake-up calls in the morning," said Mary Chayko, a professor of sociology at New Jersey's College of St. Elizabeth and author of the 2008 book "Portable Communities: The Social Dynamics of Online and Mobile Connectedness."

Maureen Baker, a teacher at Mize Elementary School in De Soto, Mo., said her daughter Hannah, 20, a business major at the University of Kansas, "Probably calls me two or three times a day."

Hannah says, "I talk to her on my way to different classes or when I'm grabbing something to eat. It's definitely comforting. Sometimes I'm a little homesick."

• The perception of improved relationships.

"Staying in constant communication actually adds to relationships," said sociologist Barry Wellman, director of the University of Toronto's NetLab.

Wellman said he knew one couple, married for about three years, who text "I love you" to each other 50 times a day.

Kort, the student in Lawrence, attended his grandmother's funeral this year. His girlfriend couldn't be there. He said that in the limousine, surrounded by grieving relatives, and driving back from the grave site, he took out his cellphone.

"I missed her so much I could barely breathe," Kort said. "I wanted her there so badly."

He texted, "I miss you so much." She immediately texted back words of comfort. Kort understands that some people might recoil at the notion of texting at such a moment.

"Without knowing what is going on, it could be deemed as rude," he said. "But I did feel better. ... At that moment, I needed her to be there."

In a virtual sense, he felt she was.

Loss of focus

Researchers and others recognize that such constant communication also presents difficulties, even a dark side.

Chayko, the New Jersey sociologist, said there existed a general sense that such constant communication, often conducted while multi-tasking, was creating a culture with a shortened attention span.

People talk or text while they walk or eat, watch television, sit in the movie, attend classes and, dangerously, drive. A recent poll of some 1,200 teens showed that 24 percent sleep with their cellphones.

"It is a compulsion to be in contact. People actually feel nervous, uncomfortable when they are too far away from their phones," Chayko said.

It becomes a preoccupation, she said.

"They have trouble doing one thing at a time. When they meet friends face to face, they will be texting at the same time they are with these other kids. They are used to juggling all these interactions, and they are good at it, but there is a loss. There is a loss of focus, a loss of reflection. There is a loss of depth."

Maureen Baker, whose daughter calls or texts her from college multiple times each day, cherishes her constant contact with her daughter. But she wonders whether it comes at the price of her daughter developing greater independence. Like Chayko, she also senses that repeated contact may be an outgrowth of people being unaccustomed to exploring quiet moments.

Although being in constant contact helps sustains relationships, it also can make getting out of those relationships that much harder.

"We run into all kinds of messy situations," said Madden of the Pew Center.

Amber Bourek, spokeswoman for Safehome, Johnson County's domestic-violence agency, recalls a client who left an abusive marriage. Twenty times each day, the man continued to text her, "Miss you," and "Thinking of you."

One day, when she knew he would be at work, she headed to the house the couple once shared to retrieve some belongings. Once she got to the house, she heard the man's voice on the answering machine: "While you're there, let the dogs out."

Aftab of WiredSafety.org said the constant communication could too easily lead to constant watching.

Technology "allows us to have a spy camera everywhere our significant other is," Aftab said. "And that information can do some serious damage when you no longer care about that person."

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