Communication Technologies & the College LDR

The life of a post-secondary student is as much about meeting academic deadlines and paying off financial debts as it is about investing in human relationships. For some students, intimacy is found in the college years.

I am one of those aforementioned students, and fortunately so. As an undergrad, I had the pleasure of meeting my first boyfriend in residence. And I am by no means the only student to have done so, or will later on in their educative years. 75% of college students have been a part of a long-distance relationship somewhere along their academic paths, according to the 2012 thesis of a University of Missouri student. This phenomenon is commonly abbreviated as ‘LDR’. Even more interesting is that anywhere from 25%-50%[1] of all residence-based student relationships are long-distance.

WHAT IS A LONG-DISTANCE RELATIONSHIP?

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Courtesy of morgueFile under free usage rights.

Wikipedia provides a concise explanation on what constitutes as a LDR. In a nutshell, your average long-distance relationship involves the long-term separation of a couple over a significant geographic distance that prevents regular face-to-face contact between partners. With this definition, questions naturally arise. How far apart does a couple have to be for the relationship to constitute as an LDR, and for what length of time?

This definition leaves a lot of wiggle room, and rightly so. One study[1] briefly notes that many scholars choose not to specify specific miles or time duration when defining a LDR.

COMMUNICATION IS THE EVER-EVOLVING KEY

The prospect of a LDR is daunting. The pain that accompanies not being able to see your significant other every day can lead to some lonely nights and long afternoons (I can testament to this). That alone is enough to make some people steer clear of this type of relationship. And logically, a relationship without any sort of physical intimacy can only go so far.

So how do LDRs survive? Their existence alone is proof that there are ways to make it work. While visitations are an essential constant, it’s the methods that people use to bridge the gaps between meetings that evolve as technology does.

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Despite the challenges that accompany every LDR, regular communication between lovers is quite possible. Better yet, as the ways in which couples keep in touch are rapidly improving with changes in communicative technologies, so is the quality of LDRs themselves.

PUTTING IT IN PERSPECTIVE

I am going to use my own relationship as an example. Say I made my sweetheart a drawing for his birthday, which is in two days time. The drawing is a standard 8.5 x 11 inch document size, and weighs between 50 and 30 grams with the bubble wrap I decided to include in my packaging.

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My first option is to send it directly to his home address using the Canada Post mail service. For security reasons, the only location information I will disclose is that he lives in Ontario, which is my home province also. According to Canada Post’s Find a Rate page for Document/Letters, my gift (large letter) will cost $12.95 CAN to have it arrive on his doorstep on his birthday, encased in an XpresspostTM  Prepaid Cushioned envelope (as I don’t want it becoming wrinkled on the journey). The price of the stamp would be another 63 cents, which I accounted for in the cost mentioned previously.

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Courtesy of morgueFile under free usage rights.

With that in mind, another option would be to simply use my smartphone, which I already paid for over a year ago, and the free WhatsApp mobile app I downloaded to send a picture of the drawing to him, for no additional charge. With this option, I can simply give the drawing to him in person next time we meet, which also would not cost me considering that I would not personally be paying for the gas to get me there. To a similar degree, I could use my laptop’s built-in webcam to do a follow-up video conversation on Skype, also for free since I am not responsible for contributing to the home internet bill.

The point is, many modern-day college students like me have similar access to the aforementioned technologies: cell phones, internet, IM, and postage services. While literally sending the drawing is more exciting for my significant other, in the long run it is cheaper for me to simply send an image of it will my cell phone’s built-in camera to him over a free IM service. I could have factored in the price of the cell phone itself, my laptops’ cost, etc., but consider that those are long-term investments that have paid their price many times over in personal usage. This is specific to my situation;  in the long run, modern technologies are often a money-saving communication strategy when used frequently enough.

The following sections examine many of the different communication technologies available to the average-day college student in terms of their general abilities and shortcomings.

SNAIL MAIL

The Pros

  • Hand-written letters are highly personalized and intimate, both to send and receive
  • Postal services allow for delivery of tangible items and/or gifts that can be physically held and saved
  • Delivery can overcome even continental distances where applicable
  • Stronger romantic element in ‘love letters’ and other personal creative outputs (artwork, poetry, etc.) compared to other forms of communication

The Cons

  • Postal Services charge based on distance and weight of item; can be more expensive in the long-term than alternative methods of communication for longer-distanced couples and larger deliveries
  • If both parties are investing in snail mail, the periods between correspondences are quite lengthy, and risk of mail interception is higher than electronic methods
  • Visuals restricted to photographs, and auditory communication to voice recordings such as those found in some cards
  • No face-to-face contact (unless sending a device that has a recording on it, which is rather redundant in the face of free voice-over-IP services like Skype)
  • Dependence on schedule and abilities of postal service; post can become lost or damaged during shipment

Bottom Line: While romantic and personal at its best, snail mail is best left as a means to send the occasional gift or other form of tangible intimate expression, rather than as a main line of communication between partners. This is due to its long-term high cost, high dependency on postal services, and potentially long waiting periods between correspondences.

LAND-LINE/CELL PHONE CALLS

The Pros

  • Real-time voice communication between partners
  • More intimate than written words (you can actually hear your partners voice and verbal expression)
  • Certain amount of free minutes often included in cell phone plans (granted, with certain geographic restrictions in many cases)
  • Allows for lengthy discussions to occur in one sitting, often covering more content than written forms of communication
  • Smartphones can support Viber, a free calling app that uses WiFi access

The Cons

  • Long-distance call charges can quickly add up with long conversations, limiting their reliability
  • When cell phone plan minutes run out, couples are forced to either pay additional fees or choose another form of communication (in terms of land lines, the holding up of the line)
  • Time Zones and personal schedules can make finding the time to call a partner more difficult than simply sending an email or letter
  • No visual communication possible
  • Phone calls cannot be replayed without additional measures being taken
  • When using land lines, call privacy can become an issue if there are other phones in the household that can be picked up

Bottom Line: Phone calls are an excellent way to catch up with a partner or share an intimate exchange, all in real-time. But depending on where each person is located and their respective phone plans, this too can end up being an inadequate form of regular communication, like snail mail.

E-MAIL

The Pros

  • Messages can be saved and collected for reading later
  • Many (free!) e-mail services allow for the sending of attachments such as images, video clips and hyperlinks, making email a cheaper way to send photographs and even scans of written letters
  • Speed of sending is much quicker than snail mail
  • No reliance on respondent being present at moment of sending, unlike phone calls
  • Computer access can be granted for free at certain public service centers, such as libraries
  • Excellent form of communication for couples of all distances
  • E-mail clients often have reliable back-up services in the case of a problem or crash

The Cons

  • No tangible products (unless printed)
  • May not seem as heartfelt as a hand-written letter of phone call; could become boring form of correspondence over time that lacks intimacy or creativity
  • Not truly real-time
  • Depends on both parties to check their inbox and reply; if one person stops timely correspondence, the relationship could suffer
  • Must have access to internet to send and receive messages

Bottom Line: While regular access to email is increasingly common in today’s technological world, it is still outpaced by even faster methods of communication. Still, it is a feasible and reliable option for many couples separated by large geographic distances that make snail mail and phone calls obsolete and astronomically expensive by comparison to rely regularly on.

IM (INSTANT MESSAGING)

The Pros

  • Commonplace among college students; many students have cell phones to text with, making this a feasible form of nearly real-time communication for students
  • Unlimited texting included in many cell phone plans, meaning few limits or additional costs for couples in the same geographic location
  • Many smartphones support apps that provide free (or very low, one-time purchase costs) IM services that use internet access, such as WhatsApp , Viber, and Facebook
  • Ability to sext or create real-time sexual tension with images or flirty messages
  • Additional emotion can be added to messages using emoticons and smileys if desired

The Cons

  • Not a feasible option for couples separated by national borders due to roaming charges
  • Intimacy is limited to text, pictures, and video clips
  • Lengthy messages/letters are often restricted by message size limits, and as such are more efficiently communicated by email or verbally
  • Must check phone often if used as main method of correspondence; the mobility of cell phones makes them a greater distraction and disruption to daily life over other forms of communication
  • Only a certain number of the most recent messages are archived; it is up to the person to save the messages they wish to revisit

Bottom Line: Instant messaging is a convenient service that benefits couples living in relative geographic proximity to one another. While being about as personal as e-mail, IM is as close to real-time as written communication can get.

VIDEO CALLS / VOICE-OVER-IP

The Pros

  • Real-time simultaneous verbal and auditory communication
  • Greater potential for higher-quality intimacy (for a futuristic example, check out Durex’s FunderWear video!)
  • Services like Skype are free to sign up and use, and available on some mobile devices
  • Groups calls, video calls and IM often options on same service that provides the video call (service Skype is a great example of this diversity)

The Cons

  • Must have internet access and a webcam device (may need to be purchased in addition to having a computer)
  • Requires a higher amount of bandwidth vs. sending an email or simply voice calling over the same service; video quality can suffer depending on the amount of available bandwidth
  • Like any real-time form of communication, Times Zones and personal schedules must be accommodated and worked around in order to make a call and have a real-time answer
  • Complete dependence on video chat as the main form of communication between partners can lead to eventual boredom or periods of awkward silence between participants; video chat is mistakenly used as a complete substitute for real physical intimacy

Bottom Line: Free video calling services like Skype are the frontier for real-time, face-to-face communication for many long-distance couples, providing they have adequate internet services and the necessary computer hardware (i.e. a webcam). However, overuse of video calling can result in an unhealthy dependence on the service to fill physical intimacy needs that can only be met by real meetings between lovers.

AT THE END OF THE DAY

While each of the aforementioned types of communication vary in strengths, weakness, application, and involvement in modern technologies, the most important weapon an LDR participant can have at their disposal is a variety of communication options, to suit a multitude of circumstances. And of course, a little creativity.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

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Again, I speak from experience. My boyfriend and I face the four months of summer apart, aside from one or two weekend visits during that time. Until September’s arrival, we have been making do by texting throughout the work days, WhatsApping at home (he gets bad reception at home, I only have internet at home), and Skype Video calling in the evenings. We have even watched TV shows together and stayed in touch using IM services throughout! While we both endure the loneliness and heartache that creeps up from time to time, the distance does make us quite passionate and more appreciative of each moment we do have together. Not to mention more excited for the full-time academic season, where we will be united once again!

Granted, our own little version of a LDR is not near as daunting as couples who are more than a few hours apart, and for longer stretches of time. To each his or her own, it seems.

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Courtesy of morgueFile under free usage rights.

But above all else, no presently available form of technology can ever replace the bond shared by two people that get to see, hear, smell and feel each other’s presence. There must be regular, physical visitation between partners if the relationship is to last and be beneficial for both parties.

ADDITIONAL REFERENCES

[1] Maguire, C. K., and Kinney, A. T. “When Distance is Problematic: Communication, Coping, and Relational Satisfaction in Female College Students’ Long-Distance Dating Relationships.” Journal of Applied Communication Research. 1.38 (2010):27-46. Scholars Portal Journals. Web. 25 June 2013.

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