Years ago – or was it decades? – I went off to college. At the same time I headed to school in Connecticut, my parents moved from one part of upstate New York to another, and my girlfriend left for her new school in Vermont. Letters were written, long distance bills (remember those?) were racked up, and many a late night email was written and text-only chat session conducted from the Science Center Vax terminal lab across the street from my dorm. Times have changed in the past 20 years, and communications technology has been at the forefront of this change. Staying in touch is cheaper, faster and easier than ever. Or, at least, it can be easy. We’ve complied a few tips and tricks for keeping close to your folks, long distance girl/boyfriends, and old high school pals when you’re off at school.

(Noah’s Bonus Tip: Break up before you go to college.Trust me. Long distance relationships are hard enough no matter the circumstances, but they’re even harder during the first year of college when you’re off on your own for the first time and meeting all sorts of new people intoxicated by the allure of newfound freedom. You don’t want to relive my frosh year of late night, long distance, Email-based heartbreak. You really don’t.)

Video Chat Rocks, if it’s Easy

Right off the bat, make it easy on your parents. They’ll want to keep in touch with you, and if you’re away from home for the first time, they’ll also want to make sure you’re happy, hygienic, and eating enough (but not too much!) on your own. What better way to literally show Mom and Dad you’re just fine, thanks, than over video chat? A picture’s worth a thousand words, and a video call can be worth at least a dozen or so phone calls … so long as the tech doesn’t get in the way. Running tech support over the phone when you’re supposed to be video chatting is no fun at all, and it’s worse when you’re doing it for less than tech-savvy parents who are already on edge because their little boy left home for college. So embrace the video chat but keep the technology simple, or at least on a level that your parents – or whoever you’ll be talking to – can deal with. A few suggestions:

Super Easy: FaceTime for iOS

FaceTime is about as easy as it gets, if both parties have an iPhone 4, iPod Touch and/or iPad 2. Apple’s ecosystem gets dinged a lot for being closed, and rightfully so, but they’ve made video calling simple so long as you stay within the system. Stay away from FaceTime for OS X, though – it’s terrible.

Really Easy: Facebook Video Chat

I’m not the world’s biggest Facebook fan, but there’s no denying the power of 750 million+ users: Facebook is huge to the point where your parents probably have accounts, whether they’re active on the service or not. Thanks to Skype, you can now video chat within Facebook’s walled garden. The system is easy to use, works very well if you’ve got a modern browser and decently fast connection, and is most likely coming to Android and iOS phones in the very near future. Just make sure you don’t accidentally conference your Mom in when you’re Facebook Video Partying with your fraternity bros in another school’s chapter…

Pretty Easy: Skype

Skype is great because it combines free video/voice/text messaging with low-cost Internet phone call options, and it’s cross platform so it doesn’t matter if you’re using an Android phone and your parents are sitting in front of their Windows computer. The software is pretty easy to use, if not quite as dead-simple as FaceTime, but you’ll have to stay on top of things like webcam drivers, making sure everyone logs into their accounts at call time, and a notoriously buggy OS X client.

Kinda Easy: Google Talk with Video

Google’s video chat service is great because it works within GMail and just about everyone has GMail these days. If you and yours are used to accessing GMail via their Web interface, it’s an easy one-or-two click jump to video calls. The downside is that Google’s webcam drivers can be headache-inducing; be prepared to run some remote tech support for Mom just in case Google’s drivers bork her webcam.

Bonus: Internet voice calling is also integrated with Gmail on the Web.

Extra Credit: Set up a private Google Hangout for group video with the folks at home and your sister faraway at her own school. You’ll earn a place in Mom’s heart for years to come if you pull that one off!

Wildcard: Video Kinect

On the off chance that you’ve got an Xbox 360 with Kinect in your dorm room and your folks have the same setup back home, give Video Kinect a try for big screen video calling without the computer. Actually, odds are this would be better for staying in touch with Xbox-playing old friends at other colleges, but who knows – maybe your parents are Dance Central addicts who bought their own system when you took yours off to school.

Oodles of Others

Of course, there are myriad other video chat solutions on the market, ranging from one-off smartphone apps to Cisco’s enterprise level telepresence hardware. Leaving them out of my list wasn’t meant as a slight to them so much as a nod towards the power of ubiquity when it comes to keeping your parents – or other less computer-savvy people in your life – afloat from afar, tech support wise. Got a favorite video calling service or a favorite way to use it? Or a good reason why back to school video calls are a bad idea? Let’s see ’em in the comments!