The benefits of technology when the distance separates us
By Ryan Durgy
Millennials are often the focus of criticism and pity in a world that is run by an aging population. However, millennials should be applauded for their use of technology to maintain communication among family, friends and partners.
Millennials are often criticized as being more anti-social than previous generations.
Associate professor at the Ted Rogers School of Management and director of the Social Media Lab at Ryerson University, Anatoliy Gruzd, said this sort of criticism is nothing new.
“I think if you go back and look at what people were saying when television came about that it was going to kill social interaction,” says Gruzd. “We hear a similar story every time we have a new type of communication technology emerge.
“It’s somewhat understandable because if you’re not the user of this technology, you may not realize all the benefits of it,” he says.
Long-distance family and romantic relationships can continue to prosper with technologies invented for the sole purpose of keeping people connected, even when they are many kilometers away. While people have been able to stay in touch via virtual video technology, new touch technologies are providing people with new ways to connect.
A company called Woodenshark has created a touch communication wristband called TapTap, which will be released this summer. The tool allows pairs to wear matching wristbands that sense touch. A signal is sent from one wristband to the other, so the other person feels a tap no matter where in the world they are.
Gruzd says the function of the TapTap device brings two world’s closer together, and that this kind of technology blurs the lines between the wearer’s offline and online worlds.
“It’s a great example of how online and offline networks and connections are actually interconnected with one another,” says Gruzd.
Previous generations would have to wait days, or even weeks, to receive communication through letters. Even the telephone only allowed contact for those in long distance relationships to connect through their auditory senses.
Now, no matter where a person is in the world, they can check in with their family and friends through technologies such as Skype and FaceTime. Parents can virtually tuck their children into bed at night.
Tim Trembath is a 27-year-old father who knows firsthand the importance of technology in fostering long-distance family relationships. Trembath lives in New Zealand, and uses Skype to stay in touch with his four-year-old daughter Aurora, who lives in Ontario.
“It’s the only way we can still communicate and see each other face-to-face. Obviously it’s a very expensive trip to Canada, which I’ve done once so far, otherwise that’s the only way of communication,” he says.
Trembath has a Skype conversation with his daughter every Saturday, although he admits that the situation is not the same as being physically present as his daughter grows older.
“It’s no substitute for the real thing, but it’s the best we can do,” he says. “I’ve bought on my end a whole bunch of children’s picture books and things and I just hold it up to the camera and read it to her. Apart from that, it’s just a normal conversation, see what she’s done during the week, and how ballet was and all that sort of stuff.”
Students in university now have an increasing number of opportunities to obtain credits while overseas through exchange programs, and many students are going to universities abroad.
Nicole Hilliard, a 23-year-old student, moved from London, Ont., to participate in an exchange in England during her third year of university.
This wasn’t the first time Hillard packed up her bags and moved across the world. When she was only 16, Hillard moved to South America and remembers having to buy phone cards in order to keep in touch with friends and family back home.
“I’d buy one for each person that I wanted to call. And I’d have to plan a day and time and know their phone number to call them. So it was really hard to keep in touch back then,” she says.
After graduating from university in 2013, Hillard moved to South Korea to teach English. She says that moving to another continent is much easier now that technology allows her to stay in touch with family and friends back home with ease.
“I can just send my mom a message and I know in the morning or that evening she’ll see it and send me a message back,” she says.
In the years since Hillard first began traveling the world, technology has seen vast advancements.
“Compared to when I first moved away (to South America) in 2007, it’s crazy for me to think about how easy it is to stay in touch because before there was no WiFi even, whereas now I can get WiFi everywhere and I have a smartphone and I can send a message home . . . In 2007 I didn’t even have a phone,” says Hillard.
With all of the innovative technology available, Hillard, who now resides in South Korea, talks to someone from back home every day. She stays in touch with her friends back home via a Korea messenger application called Kakao. She also talks to her aunt via messaging and a walkie-talkie app Voxer, and even has her mom on Snapchat.
“My mom is obsessed with Snapchat,” she says. “She sends me snapchats of her cat or the backyard like birds flying around every day. It’s so cute. I find it hilarious how old people don’t really understand the purpose of Facebook and Snapchat.”
Gruzd says older generations often join social media websites as a result of the children or grandchildren in their life who are using this technology. However, he points out that before they start using the technology, they may not fully understand the benefits of such forms of communication.
“As an outsider, you may see it as wasting your time, because you just don’t realize how it’s possible to maintain relationships via social media,” he says.
All of this access to technology hasn’t stopped Hillard from reaching people the old-fashioned way.
“I also still love writing letters. People don’t really write letters anymore . . . I just think they’re really nice to get . . . I really enjoy writing things because it’s easier for me to just sit and write a really long letter and think about everything I want to say,” she says.
Robert Camastra is someone who has been in a long-distance relationship for two years with his boyfriend Daniel. Robert, 22, goes to Columbia Dental School in New York and his boyfriend Daniel, 25, is in medical school in Dublin, Ireland.
They met in Camastra’s first year at Western University on St. Patrick’s Day when Daniel was in fourth year. A couple months passed, they began dating and have been together for three and a half years. When Daniel went to medical school in Dublin in 2013, Camastra was still at Western in his final year of his undergrad.
“I obviously didn’t want to ask him not to go. After we had dated for two years, we kind of just knew that we were going to try (long distance). It wasn’t something that we were willing to give up on without trying,” says Camastra.
Despite the distance, Camastra would plan pseudo dates via Skype with his boyfriend.
“At first we knew we had to do things on Skype, so we would watch a show together or we would make dinner at the same time and eat dinner together. We made sure we were doing things other than just talking about our days,” he says.
Before the distance drew them physically apart, Camastra and his boyfriend would go on walks together, so it was important for him to keep that tradition going.
“I really liked FaceTime audio with going on walks,” he says. “We would both go on a walk and just chat while we were walking,”
Camastra and Daniel saw each other for the first time this semester after three months of being apart.
“I kind of forgot what being with him was like and then as soon as we spent two days alone together after all that it was just like how it had always been,” he says.
This year, Camastra and Daniel are both busier than ever, but still make time to talk.
“I understand how busy he is, he understands how busy I am. We will get in a good talk a few times a week. We talk everyday but it might be as short as ten minutes or like saying goodnight because he’s five hours ahead,” says Camastra.
“If there’s a nice sunset, or something like that, I’ll send him a photo . . . it’s probably the same thing everyone does with their closest friend.”
Camastra doesn’t think his relationship would work if the technology didn’t exist to remain constantly connected.
“It would be too difficult if you could only contact each other [via letters]. It would be too infrequent,” he says.
The key to making a long distance relationship last according to Robert?
“Take it as it comes, try to enjoy yourself as much as possible, don’t let your happiness [depend on] whether your significant other is around or not. You have to make the most of what you got,” he says.
Amanda Gaeta, 22, knew the second she laid eyes on Brett that there was a connection.
“Basically, [we] immediately hit it off. It was really good. I saw him with no shirt on and that was the end of that,” Gaeta laughs.
They’ve been together for two and a half years, besides a short break during the summer before Gaeta’s final year of undergrad, while Gaeta was in her hometown of Aurora and Brett was six hours away in Ottawa.
“We stayed in touch literally every single day. It was a rough start for sure. By the end of the summer we were really strong and we knew like the second we saw each other again in London we knew that we wanted to be together and that the distance wouldn’t be an issue in the future,” she says.
The following summer Brett moved to Alberta to work on the oil drilling rigs, where he still resides. Although Brett has limited access to the Internet within his hotel, he and Gaeta still find a way to FaceTime video chat.
“He does make the effort to go to the hotspots of the hotel to be able to call me (on FaceTime). [We] definitely would not survive without technology in this distance relationship,” says Gaeta.
She discusses a time where she was challenging Brett on his whereabouts and the length of time he took to respond to her and his use of technology to reassure her that everything was as he said it was.
“Just the other day, I was saying, ‘You’re in a hotel, why are you taking so long to respond?’ Just being, you know, a jealous girlfriend. . . . And he took the time and snapchatted me the entire room, everyone that was in there and I was immediately put at ease. It was a bunch of guys in sweaty after-work clothing and I was totally fine.”
Gaeta suggests that couples in long distance relationships maintain an open stream of communication through whatever technology is right for that couple. No matter the form of communication or technology, it is clear that our generation has redefined staying in touch.
Although long distance family and romantic relationships may not be ideal, Gruzd notes that the technology millennials are using can benefit these types of relationships.
“If people meet face-to-face and then for some reason they have to live in different places, certainly, because the initial connection happened face-to-face and the relationship emerged, the technology . . . does help maintain relationships,” he says.
The innovative technologies that we have access to allow us to make sure that constant communication is a top priority when distance may be physically separating us from the family, friends and partners who mean the most.