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by Richard Louv

The Internet, along with commercial on-line services, is giving new meaning to the term "extended family." The other day, my friend Tina told me how distraught she was when her oldest son, Ben, left home to attend Brown University in Providence, R.I. Before Ben left, she imagined writing her firstborn son long, newsy letters filled with motherly advice. Instead, their phone bills got out of hand.

As a cheaper alternative, Ben started using faxes and electronic mail, and Tina followed his lead. She signed her first messages to Ben,"love from your modem mama." Now she is hooked. She and Ben communicate via email every day. Ben and his sister are also regular correspondants. "We discuss our days, our hopes,and dreams, frustrations, all the little thoughts that we might exchange if he were here," says Tina. "I guess you could say that it's our electronic dinner table." She prints the email out so she can have something solid to save for posterity. "Now, if I could only figure out a way to email cookies and fresh fruit."

Do families that email together stay together? Its too early to tell; the use of the Internet for family communication is still relatively rare. But bet the phenomenon is growing quickly. A few days ago I logged onto the Internet's alt.parenting. solutions newsgroup, and asked: Who's doing this, and what's it like?

Within a few hours the answers started filling my electronic mailbox...

Jerry of Victoria, British Columbia, said he and his wife communicate regularly with relatives spread accross Canada, including their daughter in Vancouver. "We all communicate more often and thus become more attached to each other," he told me. Susan, writing from somewhere in cyberspace, says she and her sister used to talk on the phone, at most, once or twice a year, and never wrote letters. Now they communicate two or three times a week." Email has made us closer than we have been in years," says Susan. " My sister is six years older than me. We always fought when we were kids and we never had a close relationship. Now we talk about everything."

One of the attributes of email is that it is not timebound. "My sister's days are busy and so are mine but we always have time to check our email," says Susan. "I don't have to worry about interrupting her dinner or favorite TV program."

A woman tells how email helped her family through a medical crisis:"When my Aunt Alley was diagnosed with lung cancer, her husband sent updates to their six adult children by email, from the first diagnosis to the most recent operation." Another family uses email to share investment research. And Warren, who lives in Arizona, offers an unexpected rationale for email. He says his email correspondence with his mother is making her much more computer literate which makes her that much more employable. And, here's a new twist on the personal phone call from work. Brad and his wife are both wired to the internet in their offices in LA. They use email to coordinate schedules and other mundane issues.

Beyond mere email is the potential of the Internets graphical World Wide Web. Bob Hawkins, the editor of the Union-Tribune's"Computer Link" section, imagines families someday creating their own Web pages; family members around the country, or around the world, could post news, photographs, sounds and videos. In fact, that's already beginning. One man reports that his family sends scanned photos of each other across the Net, including shots of "baby's new outfit, school pictures, my brother's latest skydive." I ran across one Web page of family photos, with these captions: "See the latest pictures of my niece. Here is a picture of Merriweather, my 2 year old chocolate lab. This is Sandi, my wife." I wondered how Sandi felt being billed second to Merrriweather!

Is there any downside to any of this? Probably not, as long as online messages expand the amount of communication and do not replace face-to-face conversation. One danger does come to mind. That is "flaming." That is the well-documented human tendency to overstate emotions on-line. Certainly, flaming could aggravate already emotionally loaded family communications. One man reports that one of his relatives went through a crisis and sent a suicide message via email that sent "waves of panic through the family." Susan does not consider the phone any safer, but she carefully plans her messages to her sister. "If you don't like the way it sounds, you can rephrase it." For some, like my friend Tina, email remains a kind of therapy.


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Richard Louv is a columnist for the San Diego Union-Tribune, from which this piece has been reprinted with permission. He is also the author of "Childhood's Future" (Anchor), and his new book, "The Web of Life: Weaving the Values that Sustain Us," (Conari Press) will be published in May.


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