Backstory: Look, Mom, it's me. I'm OK!
Web cams at Cornell and other schools give eager parents a glimpse of their kids.
Bereft after moving her son into the freshman dorms at Cornell University a few months ago, Janet Hutchison found herself trawling the college's website for clues to his new life. A click on the weather link told her that Dan would need a jacket. A click on the chemistry department's Web page brought up the list of courses he'd have to choose from.Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
Then she found the school's "Hi, Mom!" Web cam. With a few taps of the mouse, she could swivel a camera high atop Barnes Tower and zoom in on the granite benches outside the campus store. She giddily called Dan on his cellphone and guided him into position. Then, there was her boy – live, on her computer screen – looking every inch the collegian, in his jeans, polo shirt, and new haircut, blowing kisses to Mom.
"It was heart-wrenching, just to see him," recalls Ms. Hutchison, a manager at a car rental company in Boston, a nearly six-hour drive from Ithaca, N.Y. "Just to see him live and to know he's OK."
Web cams have been a fixture on college campuses for close to a decade, beaming views of iconic quads and clock towers to would-be students and nostalgic alumni. But this year, Cornell joined a small number of campuses also deploying the cameras in a new way: as a digital tether to parents eager for live glimpses of children on their own for the first time.
For them, the "Hi, Mom!" cams offer a few seconds of reassurance that children are still brushing their hair, eating square meals, and wearing the Uggs that cost more than their parents once paid for tuition. When Dan Hutchison, 18, a chemistry major and rower, stepped under the lens for the first time, his mother beamed. "I told him, 'You finally got your hair cut,' " says Janet. "It was past time."
Though not explicitly called "mom cams," real-time cameras at Whitman College in Walla Walla, Wash., (in the computer lab and cafeteria) and at Towson University in Maryland (the central grounds) bring Web viewers almost close enough to see whether Johnny remembered to floss. The websites of the University of Redlands in California and Ohio Wesleyan University give visitors nearly full control over roof-mounted lenses that can pan campus or zoom in on students locking up bikes, or flirting. At the University of Rochester website, visitors home in on three open-air spots at the student union: the "Hi, Mom! Balcony," the "Hi, Mom! Bridge," and the "Hi, Mom! Closeup."
"There's a community aspect – waving to your parents, saying 'hi' to friends, scheduling times to be by the Web cam – that's growing," says Chris Carson, president of CampusTours Inc., a Maine company that builds online tours of colleges.
The trend coincides with a crop of students who are in far more frequent contact with parents than earlier generations. One reason, says Barbara Hofer, a psychologist at Middlebury College in Vermont, is the proliferation of unlimited calling plans, cellphones, e-mail, and text messaging that make a quick check-in easy and cheap. But another reason may be spiraling college costs. "People are monitoring an investment," she says. "They've put so much into this, both in terms of time to prepare kids for school and the money they're paying once they're there."
Ron Stephany, vice president of university relations at the University of Redlands, installed the "Bulldog Cam" over the student center plaza in 2004 for alumni, but later heard that parents were going online to see their kids – perhaps too often.
"We actually refer to some parents now as helicopter parents, because they're always hovering," says Mr. Stephany, whose school launched a seven-week online course this fall to help parents of freshmen "let go." "It's not uncommon to be walking around and [hear] students on their cellphone, and they will literally be saying, 'Hi, Mom, I just got out of my English class. I'm on my way to lunch.' "