Lily Cummings visits with her grandparents over Skype several times a week. The 18-month-old loves showing off her baby dolls and stuffed animals, and even being “tickled” by her grandfather, who leans in toward the screen and pretends to go after her belly. So when Lily’s mom asked the San Francisco toddler where her Grandma Cath and Granddad live, the answer was simple.
They live in the computer.
Lily’s grandparents, Cathy and Tom Linsenmayer, actually reside in Newton. But as video chat services like Skype and FaceTime grow more popular, many children think of Nana and Poppa as those people on the screen — characters who sometimes have trouble getting the audio to work, but who are more interactive than even the best educational program.
“The only way I can get her out of the bath is to tell her we’re going to Skype,” said Alysia Linsenmayer, Lily’s mother. “It’s a lifesaver.”
Twelve percent of grandparents Skype with their grandkids, according to a report by the MetLife Mature Market Institute and the nonprofit Generations United, an intergenerational policy group. That’s up from almost none just a few years ago, said report author Amy Goyer.
Even grandparents who rave about video chats say they don’t compare with a hug, but almost 40 percent of grandparents have a grandchild who lives more than 500 miles away, according to the study. And that makes video chat often the best — and only — way to see that new hair cut or first steps.
“The grandparents who Skype love it,” said Goyer, the AARP’s family expert.
Or, as Liza Heapes of Charlestown, joked: “Now showing — your grandparents.”
Behind the trend, says Ellen Breslau, editor-in-chief of grandparents.com, are grandparents eager to stay in touch with far-flung grandchildren, technology that’s getting easier to use — and competition to be the hippest and most involved grandparent going.
“Many long-distance grandparents feel that ‘out-of-sight, out-of-mind’ is a real truism for them,” she said. “They don’t want to be forgotten when kids are off living their own lives.”
“In some circles, it can be seen as a badge of honor,” Breslau added, “as in ‘I Skype with my grandkids three times a week. How often do you Skype with yours?’ ”
In Hingham, Emma Joyce, just 13 months old, is so accustomed to regularly video chatting with her grandparents and other relatives that she was baffled recently when those family members did not answer her mom’s Skype calls.
“She was talking to the screen and wondering why she wasn’t hearing anything back,” Allison Joyce reported.
But despite almost daily video calls, when her grandmother came to town recently from Ohio, and Emma saw her in person, the little girl started to cry, reacting almost as if her grandmother was a stranger.
“It was a hard reaction for my mom to see,” Joyce said. FaceTime works for the most part, “but it’s still a different experience than being there in person.”
Adam Rosen, founder of Oakbog, a Mac consulting firm based in Malden, is particularly well positioned to see the growing interest in video chatting. He’s now getting several calls a month from grandparents eager to start Skyping with their grandchildren — even if they don’t have the lingo down quite right. “They’ll say, we want to get on ‘the’ Skype,” he reports.
Virtual though the visits may be, they quickly take on the feeling of being there, warts and all. Wellesley grandmother Janina Christie says her four Connecticut granddaughters spend a good portion of the visits jockeying for position in front of the camera. “They all want to talk first,” she said.
Sometimes the girls show their grandmother (they call her “Dabada”) their homework, and sometimes they carry her around on their laptop.
“They have a swimming pool. I get to go outside with them. It’s just fun,” Christie said.
The visits are good for the adult children, too. Barbara Graham, the editor of “Eye of My Heart: 27 Writers Reveal the Hidden Pleasures and Perils of Being a Grandmother,” sometimes Skypes in as a long-distancing “babysitter” for her granddaughters when the girls’ parents need a break or have something pressing to do.
“I’ve spent as much as an hour and a half entertaining them or reading books out loud,” she said. Generally the plan works well, Graham added, “although sometimes the kids disappear into another room.”
Christine Crosby, editorial director of Grand, an online magazine, says she’s determined to encourage grandparents to get with the times if they want to stay close with their wired grandkids. “This may be the only way to hear your grandchildren’s voice,” she said. “Kids can be awkward on the phone and texting isn’t satisfying.”
But the visits aren’t for everyone.
Dan Zevin, the author of “Dan Gets a Minivan,” says his family gave up after one video visit with his in-laws. “The kids were too young, and the grandparents were too old,” he said.
His son Leo, then 4 years old, knocked the Zevins’ camera down when he tried to wrap his stuffed snake around it. Meanwhile, out in California, the grandparents spent most of the chat trying to figure out where to angle their own camera. “Can you see me?” they kept asking.
“There was a lot of stage direction going on,” Zevin said.
At least Zevin’s in-laws gave it a try. Almost half of the grandparents surveyed by the AARP said they communicate with distant grand kids only by phone — no e-mail, no text, and no Skype, according to a 2011 study.
Although video chatting has gotten easier, with in-computer cameras and FaceTime on Apple devices, challenges still abound. Rosen, the Mac consultant, says his father and his niece and nephew had so much trouble getting the audio to work during a recent Skype call that they kept the picture on but spoke by phone.
Sometimes the trouble isn’t a bad connection — but one that’s too good. When Andrew Buckley’s 9-year-old daughter, Sofie, talks to her mother’s parents in Austria, he makes sure the messy floor is not in view.
“Her grandmother is very clean,” said Buckley, a producer of WBGH’s Web series, “Hit and Run History.”
If there’s one problem with video chatting, it’s scheduling. Two of the busiest groups these days seem to be kids, with their extracurricular activities, and grandparents, with theirs. Goyer, the author of the Met Life study, has some advice: “You need to make it less of an occasion and more of a habit,” she said.
That’s what Lily’s grandparents, the Linsenmayers, do. In fact, the Newton couple speaks to her so regularly that the 18-month-old is outraged when the screen occasionally freezes up or some other technical problem emerges.
“She doesn’t understand what’s going on,” Cathy Linsenmayer said.
Meanwhile, perhaps nothing captures modern grandparenting like the way Lily says goodnight. “You see her little hand going up to close the computer,” Grandma reported. Then a message appears on their screen: “Lily Cummings went offline.”Beth Teitell can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @bethteitell.