Kaci Alvarez, a 20-year-old journalism student living in Ontario, Canada, used to watch YouTube videos before going to bed. Her ears ring, and she found that the sounds of some online videos, especially the voice of a YouTuber named Ryan Klepacs, relieved the din. Two years ago, after Alvarez tuned into a live video Q&A that Klepacs hosted for fans, the two met, and they quickly started dating despite living hours apart by car. One evening, while they were Skyping, Alvarez decided to go to sleep, and Klepacs did the same, without ending the call. When they woke up the next day, the videochat was still running.
They found the experience so comforting that they slept “together” over videochat every night while they were living in two different cities, making them part of a small but ardent group of couples, many in long-distance relationships, who rely on the practice to maintain intimacy while apart. Having a camera running through the night (or even just during a nap) might strike some as invasive, but the people I spoke with said the practice made sense to them: Couples who live in the same place can share a bed, so why shouldn't they be able to do the same, albeit virtually?
Couples remotely share a bed for many reasons, ranging from the pragmatic to the romantic. For one thing, it comes with the obvious benefit of confirming a partner’s fidelity. “You can’t cheat on me while I’m watching, basically,” said Krissy Celess, a 24-year-old rapper and salon owner in Miami whose boyfriend lives nearby, in Fort Lauderdale, but travels a lot for work. The routine can also be soothing. Many people I spoke with slept over videochat every night; some said they couldn’t fall asleep without their partner on the screen. When Alvarez visited her parents, who have limited Wi-Fi service, she and Klepacs conserved data by not videochatting during the day, so that they could fall asleep together at night. “It was mandatory for us,” Klepacs told me.
The absence of touch may make videochatting less physically intimate than sharing a bed, but simulated proximity can create a different type of intimacy: While one might share a bed with a one-night stand, one would presumably never fall asleep with a stranger on FaceTime. Almost all the people I talked with stressed that they could sense their partner’s presence through the screen. Rachel Griffin, a 22-year-old security guard at a Walmart in Orlando, Florida, told me that videochatting overnight with her now ex-boyfriend helped her get through a motel-room stay during a cross-country move. “I didn’t feel lonely,” she said. “I could wake up in the middle of the night, and I knew he was there.”
This sense of togetherness can be especially powerful for long-distance couples, who miss out on sharing many small, day-to-day interactions. As Pia, a 20-year-old working at an animal hospital near Jacksonville, Florida, dealt with anxiety, the constancy of nocturnal videochatting steadied her. “He was always just there,” she said of her significant other, a land surveyor who lives in New Jersey. (Pia asked to be identified by only her first name to protect her privacy.)
In some ways, sleeping over videochat can be very similar to sharing a bed. A significant other’s snoring might still be audible (though a call offers the option of lowering the volume). Alarm clocks still blare at early hours.
But at other times, technology’s limitations are all too perceptible: Data plans can be expensive. Wi-Fi is often spotty. Sometimes reaching your partner is impossible. Max Edgington, a 25-year-old who briefly lived in a small town in northern Canada, avoided buying Wi-Fi for months, instead carefully perching his phone on the windowsill, where, from the right position, it could allow him to barely access a local public network and videochat with his partner, who lived just north of the U.S.-Canada border. If his phone slipped, he lost connection.
Even when nothing goes wrong, the technology itself might not be ideal for getting high-quality sleep. H. Craig Heller, a biology professor at Stanford University who studies sleep, told me that on one hand, he would expect having a partner on the phone to be comforting, and thus helpful for dozing off. But on the other, he noted, the blue light from a screen could make falling asleep right after a pre-bedtime videochat harder.
Sharing a bed over videochat could scan as a hollow simulation of occupying the same physical space, but despite the hiccups and limitations, the couples I spoke with considered it a way to overcome the challenges of being geographically separated. Jeff Hancock, a Stanford communications professor and the founder of the school’s social-media lab, told me that sleeping over videochat is a means of indicating one’s commitment. It “signals that I’m going to spend my time and energy and technology on being with you,” he said. And although a screen cannot provide the same warmth as a body, the strength of that shared devotion can help sustain a relationship.
Phenomena like this are new, results of advances in communication technology. From letters to telephone calls to videochats, forging intimacy over distance has grown considerably easier. But as much as some couples enjoy falling asleep together over videochat, every person I interviewed stressed that physically being together was undeniably preferable to the virtual alternative. Some, such as Klepacs and Alvarez, had recently closed the distance in their relationship and no longer needed to rely on technology each night. “When we sleep in the same bed together, it’s so much nicer—oh, my God,” Klepacs said.
Still, there’s something powerful, beautiful even, about the technologically mediated experience. Tim McArthur, a 21-year-old photographer and videographer in Boulder, Colorado, told me that when he would videochat overnight with his now ex-girlfriend, the microphone would pick up her every breath and rustle in her quiet room. Coming from someone he knew so well, the sounds became imbued with meaning. Her breath would hitch and quicken during nightmares, but at other times it would slow down, and he would know that she was in a calm, deep sleep.