Volume 79 | Issue 2
March 2011

Student-Parent Communication in the College Years: Can students grow up on an electronic tether?

Barbara K. Hofer

Just a decade ago students and parents navigated the college transition without the panoply of technology that now creates a seamless connection between them. Cell phones existed, but students were more likely to have them than were parents, and unlimited calling plans had yet to alter the landscape. Texting was possible for the technologically nimble, but that seldom included an older generation. Facebook and Skype had not entered the scene. Residence halls had landlines, and the Sunday night phone call was the weekly routine for many families.

Walk across any campus today, however, and a good portion of the students will be talking on their cell phones. Some are setting up lunch plans with friends who are only a few hundred yards away. And others are using the quick walk from one class to another to tell their parents about the test they just got back, to update them on a story from the weekend, or to complain about a roommate. Parents are pulled into the immediacy of their child’s experience in ways that are unprecedented. Small wonder that they often leap to react, using the tools at their disposal to contact the college, hoping to fix a problem that could have been solved by the student, or one that might have evaporated altogether by the time a weekly call rolled around.

This cultural shift raises a set of questions about development during the college years. Can students grow up on this electronic tether? Is all this communication healthy? How can colleges respond?

Literature review
Psychologists break the life span into phases and use the words “infant” or “adolescent,” for example, as shorthand for conveying a particular period of time with its own developmental tasks. These discrete periods undergo revision, however; for example, the idea of adolescence as a particular life stage only gained credence after G. Stanley Hall published his massive tome “Adolescence” in 1904. In the past decade, psychologists have been wrestling with a proposal for a new stage between adolescence and adulthood, coined “emerging adulthood” by Jeffrey Arnett, a psychologist at Clark University, in an article in the American Psychologist in 2001. This period of life is projected as spanning from 18–25 and has its own unique developmental challenges.

One of the primary psychosocial tasks of the period of late adolescence and emerging adulthood is to become an autonomous individual who is self-governing and self-regulating while sustaining a healthy connection with parents. Autonomy, in other words, does not mean severing ties with parents, but learning how to navigate life as a responsible individual no longer emotionally dependent on parents and capable of seeing parents as people with their own lives, apart from their roles as parents.

In the emotional and behavioral aspects of autonomy, individuals gradually assume more responsibility for their actions, with declining parental oversight and involvement, as Laurence Steinberg noted in a 2001 article in the Journal of Adolescence, summarizing the state of knowledge on adolescent-parent relationships. The progression toward emotional autonomy has been linked to both educational and occupational achievement in college and beyond, as noted by Bell and colleagues in a chapter on family factors and young adults transitions in the 1996 book “Transitions through Adolescence.”

The skills of self-regulation are similarly critical, and these are particularly important in the academic sphere, as students learn to take increased ownership of study habits and strategies, relying less on others to prompt them toward these behaviors. At the same time, they learn to regulate their cognition and behavior to achieve their academic goals, and this process fosters learning, academic achievement, and college success, as has been
noted in multiple studies. (See Ross et al., in a 2003 Educational Research and Evaluation article for an example.) Research has been conducted on interventions to improve self-regulation of first-year college students, as reported in the journal Teaching of Psychology in a 2003 article by Barbara Hofer and Shirley Yu. Few studies, however, have addressed how self-regulation actually develops during the adolescent and young adult years, or how students who have been “other-regulated” in high school make the important transition to self-regulation in college

The college years have been viewed as critical periods for the transition toward psychological autonomy and self-regulation, in part because of the separation from parents that occurs when students leave home for college, as many do. Yet we know little about how often students are now continuing to communicate with their parents, in spite of their distance from home, and how the frequency of such contact may be related to psychosocial development. With cell phones now ubiquitous and unlimited calling plans providing inexpensive access, students and parents have vast opportunities for regular and immediate contact. Research on student development during the college years needs to be addressed in light of these cultural shifts.

Concerned that the unprecedented amount of communication between college students and their parents in the current era might be related to the issue of autonomy development and self-regulation, a research lab at Middlebury College set out to explore how often students and parents were communicating and how students were developing. This research was conducted with a team of student researchers over multiple years, including Elena Kennedy, Nancy Fullman, and Catherine Timmins, each of whom did honors thesis work on the project. The central research question that guided this set of studies was: How do frequency, initiation, and content of communication between emerging adults and their parents relate to psychosocial development in terms of emotional autonomy and self-regulation?

The research project began with a series of focus groups to help shape questions for a student survey. One set of focus groups, convened in the summer, involved students between high school and their first year of college, who were asked about their expectations for communication with parents once they left home. The students in this group reported their excitement about heading off to college and becoming more independent of their parents; they expected little parental involvement during college and envisioned weekly contact.

A second set of focus groups was organized with first-year students at the end of the academic year, asking them to reflect back on parental communication during the first year of college. These groups provided eye-opening detail of the ways in which parental involvement was being shaped by technological convenience. One student reported that his mother had all four syllabi and called to remind him when anything was due. Others reported how easy it was to send papers home and have parents edit and return them, just as they had done at the kitchen table in high school. Still others reported on parents providing a wake-up service on exam days.

In the first survey study, newly admitted Middlebury students who logged onto the college website to get information about the September orientation schedule were presented with a link to a survey and were entered into a raffle if they participated. In that study, students responded to a series of questions that included their expectations about communicating with parents during college and their parents’ regulation of their behavior during the high school years. Surveyed again at the end of the semester, students (n=158) responded to questions about the form, frequency, initiation, and content of their communication, as well as a battery of psychological measures about autonomy and self-regulation. (A subset of 39 students were surveyed weekly to see if their reports regarding communication at the end of the term were valid measures; there were no differences in the frequency.)
Surveyed before heading off to college, students reported that they expected to communicate with their parents weekly, on average. Responding to questions regarding actual frequency, however, students reported an average of 10.4 times per week, with all forms of communication combined. Moreover, they were not unhappy with such contact, and most seemed satisfied. Cell phones were the primary form of communication, followed by e-mail. Students who reported parental regulation in high school (parents who woke them up, reminded them to clean their room) were most likely to report parental behavioral regulation in college.

Curious about whether this was a phenomenon related solely to the transition to college that perhaps declined over time, and eager to learn whether the findings were isolated to small liberal arts colleges or perhaps more exaggerated in that environment, the research team expanded the study the following year. A random stratified sample of undergraduates from the University of Michigan completed a revised and expanded version of the web-based survey, along with students from all four years at Middlebury. Adding a large research university in the Midwest provided the opportunity to see what type of differences might exist by institution and region, at least among students who were somewhat comparable academically. The research tools were also refined, including more measures of autonomy, student satisfaction with college, GPA, and measures of the relationship with parents.

On average, students (n=908) were communicating 13.4 times per week with their parents. There were no meaningful differences by institution (13.5 times per week at Middlebury and 13.2 times per week at Michigan) or year in school (see Table 1). Regular, frequent communication seemed to have become a norm among the college students studied. There were also no differences by distance from home, parental income, or race and ethnicity. Even the gender differences that existed were relatively small, with women in contact with their parents only slightly more than men (14.5 versus 11.3 times per week). Also surprising was the mutuality of the initiation of the contact, with students self-reporting that they were the initiators nearly as often as the parents (see Table 1).

Moreover, most students (75 percent) were not dissatisfied with this amount of contact—in spite of having predicted weekly communication with parents. Some wished for even more time with parents. As one student said about talking with her mother, “It’s hard to get everything in a simple telephone conversation. If there was a way to meet for coffee every day and chat, then things would be perfect.” Some students spoke of their parents as “best friends” (and particularly women about their moms). Many students wanted more contact with dads in particular, a concern of 27 percent of the respondents, but nearly twice as common among women as men. In the move from landlines to cell phones, calls have become increasingly privatized and no longer does a student just “call home” or get a call from home; instead, students call or are called by a particular parent, and more often than not, mom is the contact. Sixty-four percent reported talking to moms more, but that was especially true of women (70 percent, compared to 52 percent of men).

In another survey study from the research lab, conducted with the parents of the students in this same study, the rapid change that these patterns of communication represent was evident. Most respondents reported that when they were college-age they communicated with their parents, on average, once a week. They also reported being less close to their parents at a similar age. Indeed, relationships within this group are strong, with students rating their relationships with parents as 7.8 on average on a 10-point scale.

The central finding of this study was that those students with the most frequent parental contact were the least emotionally autonomous. Frequent contact was particularly problematic when the calls were largely initiated by parents. These students had the least positive relationship with parents, and these relationships were characterized by two central factors: control and conflict. High student-initiated contact, by contrast, was positively related to a better relationship with parents, correlated with the scales of companionship, mutuality, and comfort and understanding. But even those students were less autonomous than others and appeared to be trading autonomy for closeness.

In terms of self-regulation, the findings were robust and consistent with previous research. Students who were in charge of their own learning were those with higher autonomy. Self-regulation was also significantly correlated with a strong relationship with parents, satisfaction with the overall college experience, satisfaction with academic performance, enthusiasm for learning, and GPA. Self-regulation was negatively correlated with procrastination and with parental regulation of academic work.

Parental academic regulation had no healthy correlates. Instead, continuing to regulate students’ academic work from afar was correlated with procrastination, lower autonomy scores, and amount of parental contact. One of the more troubling findings in the study was the degree to which students were receiving academic support services from parents. Nearly one in five students (19 percent) reported that parents were editing and proofing their papers.

Conclusions and implications
Highly frequent contact between parents and students during the college years seems to be a pervasive phenomenon; this is a dramatic change in a short period of time. The frequency of contact and the accompanying psychosocial influences have also been documented across multiple campuses and regions of the United States, as described in the 2010 book “The iConnected Parenting: Staying Close to Your Kids in College and Beyond while Letting Them Grow Up,” by Barbara K. Hofer and Abigail Sullivan Moore.

As the results of the studies show, college students in the highest contact with their parents are also least autonomous. Furthermore, those who are self-regulating are succeeding in college, and those whose parents are continuing to regulate them from afar are not doing as well. These are correlational findings, of course, so perhaps parents who are calling their kids a lot and reminding them to do things are the ones whose kids are already procrastinators and overly dependent on parents. But the message to parents is that maintaining this level of regulation is not working. What works is to help students develop the skills of self-regulation and independence, as this set of studies confirms.

Colleges and universities can address these issues in multiple ways. One important step is in parent orientation programs or on parent weekends, helping parents to take the long view of student success. Helping one’s child get an A on tomorrow’s paper is generally less valuable than long-term skill development. In addition, providing an overview of psychosocial development during the college years and articulating a model of healthy parental involvement is an important contribution to ongoing parental education.

Parents can also be given information about the resources available on campus and encouraged to guide students toward them. College students would benefit from seeking appropriate resources to find solutions to problems rather than simply calling home for help, and parents and college staff and faculty can reinforce this and encourage broader help-seeking skills. The individual with a problem roommate who learns to navigate the difficulty, perhaps with help from a resident counselor, and who learns new communication skills, is likely to benefit more from that than the one whose parents quickly call a dean and argue for a room transfer.

In addition, colleges and universities can help foster independence and self-regulatory skills both in and out of the classroom. Students who learn to take responsibility for activities and events programming, for example, often learn to break large tasks into smaller ones and to work backward from a goal to develop an understanding of what needs to be done. They can be shown how these skills can be transferred to the rest of their lives.
Educators might wish to provide supportive environments for students to develop and practice self-regulated learning early in the first year of college. These can be full-semester courses on “Learning to Learn” or short workshops on the skills involved. Colleges can also better define what constitutes “authorized assistance” for academic work and consider issues of equity that exist when parents continue to provide academic assistance. Faculty members who are grading student work have no way of knowing which papers were rewritten by parents (and many may be surprised to learn this is happening at all), and this discrepancy can perpetuate privilege. Nor does parental rewriting of papers help students learn the very skills parents are paying so dearly to foster.

The development of autonomy is a gradual process, and learning to think for oneself and to listen to an inner compass and not just to external dictates is one that can be assisted by college staff. Opportunities for discussion, for clarifying differences, for critical thought, for exposure to new ideas and beliefs, are all part of the process – as is learning to process such thinking with peers and new adult mentors – and programming directed toward these aims can be beneficial. Development happens in many aspects of the student experience, and not just in the classroom. Using this research to consider the type of programming that might benefit student development in the age of the “electronic tether” can help students move toward independence while creating healthy family connections.