“Friendships are a powerful healing force for physical and mental illness…strong, healthy relationships and a supportive environment are important resources to draw upon when dealing with any of life’s difficult, stressful, traumatic or life-threatening situations.”
That’s a direct quote from recent research published online by Reviews in Health Care. The study considered how the school-based friendships formed by children help them cope with the stress and uncertainty of dealing with serious illness. In this case, the illness was cancer.
The report ultimately suggests the need for further in-depth study in the field, but its contents will sound logical to most people–strong friendships are a positive influence on a sick child’s well-being. This idea is the driving force behind Hopecam, a non-profit organization with a mission to overcome the social isolation of children in treatment for cancer. Through the use of video conferencing, Hopecam is placing sick children back among their friends within the familiarity of a virtual classroom.
Hopecam Makes Kids Feel Normal
Freshman student Elyssia said she was “devastated” when doctors told her she wouldn’t be able to attend school for a year because of her leukemia diagnosis. In addition to the stress and anxiety of finding out that she was sick, the situation was compounded by thoughts of impending isolation.
She is one of dozens of children within the Hopecam program using video conferencing to maintain as much of their normal life as possible while undergoing treatment. You can hear from her yourself in the video below, produced by program sponsor and video conferencing hardware manufacturer Logitech:
For children like Elyssia, some stability and normalcy are necessary in order to cope with such a profound life change. And if a free webcam or tablet can help a child stay connected with their peers while they undergo these changes, then that’s surely one of the best uses digital technology can be put to.
How the Hopecam Program Works
Hopecam does more than hand out hardware. The charity literally establishes a connection where previously there was none. In addition to supplying the webcams, computers, and tablets needed to get online, Hopecam installs and pays for internet access in the student’s own home. The company also works with the student’s school to get the connection up and running smoothly by dealing with “red tape,” providing equipment to the school, and giving teachers instructions and even lesson plans that help them adjust to having a virtual student.
The setup allows the absent student to participate in the full range of classroom activities, from listening to lessons to talking with their friends.
When up and running, the setup allows the absent student to participate in the full range of classroom activities, from listening to lessons to talking with their friends. Using a computer placed on a school desk and turned to face either the group or the teacher–as well as another in front of the remote student–visual information can flow as freely as during an in-person class.
It’s a simple video conferencing arrangement that is becoming more common in schools in the U.S., in part because 98% of public school districts currently have access to high-speed broadband internet connections. Whereas the technology is generally used to bring experts into the classroom for educational guest appearances, the Hopecam model permits a student to stay in touch with their regular studies.
When it works, it works like this:
We’ve seen the dynamic applied to help students with hearing impairments and to prevent the spread of seasonal illness, but the Hopecam version is one of the most inspiring, and it could be readily expanded to enhance a seriously ill child’s social health.
An Online Circle of Friends
The availability and affordability of video conferencing connections have prompted an increase in the number of online self-help groups. Given that it costs less than $100 to buy an HD webcam and that there is a range of free video conferencing platforms currently available, those struggling with all kinds of illnesses and other challenges are banding together online. From new moms to those fighting addiction, diverse groups of people are using video conferencing as a way to share experiences face-to-face.
The availability of webcams and video conferencing software could also extend social interactions beyond the classroom.
For children such as Elyssia, the availability of webcams and video conferencing software could extend social interactions beyond the classroom. A school or parent would simply need to establish a common meeting room within a group-friendly app–Zoom would work, but so would platforms like Facebook Messenger or WhatsApp. There are also parent-controlled, child-friendly video platforms now available that impose strict limits on who can and cannot gain entry, which keeps things safe online and retains the intimacy of remote friendships.
With one of these apps in place for after-school socializing and the Hopecam program set up during class time, a student in Elyssia’s position could potentially stay in touch with their circle of friends over the entire course of a normal day.
Once that additional research is performed on the importance of friendships in dealing with childhood illness, we’ll have more scientific incentives for digital interventions like Hopecam. For now, though, I think we can all agree that there’s plenty of anecdotal evidence to suggest that online friendships help kids fight life’s hardest challenges–and video conferencing can help.