The virtual parent New Internet services offer working mothers and fathers access to their children's lives at day care and preschool, but is video access a real connection?

January 11, 1998|By Patricia Meisol | Patricia Meisol,SUN STAFF

Every morning when she arrives at her high-tech cubicle in Austin, Texas, Allyson Solymosy logs onto her computer. Before voice mail, even before she checks e-mail, she clicks the icon for her 15-month-old son. Her password approved, she peers into Nicholas' classroom.

Reassured by what she sees, the 33-year-old legal assistant removes her coat, fills her coffee mug and begins her day at Samsung Austin Semiconductor.

In a perfect world, Solymosy would work 30 hours a week. For now, finances dictate that she work full time. Being able to look into her son's day care class by using a hot new technological service relieves some of her guilt.

"It makes me feel better," she says. "It's really a parent toy."

With 3,000 hits on the icon to her son, more than any new user, Solymosy is the archetypal virtual parent. The information she gleans by computer helps her draw out her toddler on the 35-minute drive home, telling him, for example, "I saw you [on the TV] today drawing a ghost." When she catches him wildly creating a masterpiece or making a particularly enchanting face, she prints his picture and pastes it in an album. The other day she got a great shot of him kissing his teacher.

What she calls "a window" into her son's life may soon be `D available to hundreds of thousands of parents. The company that provides the service to the Solymosy family, Dallas-based Watch Me!, is wiring 10 preschool centers in the first quarter of 1998, bringing its total to 24 centers, and has emerged as the lead player in the race to wire 100,000 child-care centers across the country. The company is expected to begin marketing in Baltimore and Washington next month.

"We're riding a wave right now," says Eric Foster, a former bank vice president who co-founded Watch Me! with a friend whose wife was pregnant. The company's slogan, "A mouse click away," appeals to parents "who just miss seeing their child hold a paintbrush and do things that, for the most part, no one else cares about," he says.

The potential market is believed to be so vast that Foster and his competitors -- ParentNet Inc., of Atlanta, owners of the KinderCam Internet camera system, and Simplex Knowledge in White Plains, N.Y. -- are logging long days in the bid to sell or rent video equipment and operating talent. KinderCam expects to have 20 systems up within five months. Simplex, in partnership with IBM, has six locations in Connecticut and New York.

Parent enthusiasts for this new technology see it as a tool to stay connected and improve their relationships with their children. Some take comfort, too, in the notion that teachers know parents can be watching at any time.

But other parents and some educators fear the ability to watch one's child on video during the day may widen the distance between working parent and child by creating a false sense of connection. If so, parents could stop interacting with teachers.

"The tendency is to say, 'I don't have to talk to teachers or go to school and get involved in the hard work of parent-teacher organizations. I can plug in,' " says Henry Giroux, Waterbury Professor of Education at the Pennsylvania State University.

He calls one-way cameras a technological fix for a social and political problem -- parents who need more time to satisfy their responsibilities as parents. Instead of addressing the issue, he fears "virtual parenting" could lead to a decline in actual relating.

"Good grief," he says. "We are trying to find ways to meet social responsibilities in ways that are not social."

A $20 monthly subscription to Watch Me! buys online access for parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles and even family friends.

What they get is "a window" into children's lives, a 5-by-7-inch still-life picture, sometimes fuzzy, dark at nap time, that reveals these little ones in various states of play and sleep, eating, hitting, screaming. The picture changes every one or two minutes.

All day, Solymosy clicks on new pictures of her son, seen in one of two cameras pointed at his play and lunch areas. One day she spotted him with a basket on his head. Another day she caught him in mid-air. She knows if he is sleeping. She can see when he is crying (his first day in the toddler room). She's so camera-wise she can sense when something's wrong.

Watching teachers tuck in Nicholas early one November morning, Solymosy dialed the school: "Is he feeling well?" she asked.

"No," came the teacher's answer. "We've been trying to call you." Solymosy glanced at her belt and realized she'd forgotten to turn on her pager.

It was a rare lapse for a mother who once called school twice in the morning and twice in the afternoon to ask, among other things, "Did Nicholas eat his lunch?"

"Watch Me!" answers this question now, but she still calls school. She estimates she tunes in an average of once every hour and has tumbled to third-place among about 150 Watch Me! regulars.

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