Chapter 2 — The Electronic Tether: Communication between Today’s College Students and Their Parents
We open with Doonesbury articulating the central tension of the book — not helicopter parenting per se, something more along the lines of “we weren’t like this?”
(Note, there’s about a week and a half of strips on this topic if you click the link)
The first study used online surveys and focus groups and compared what students thought would happen with regard to communication with their parents with what actually did.
- Most students predicted they’d talk to parents about once a week (and focus groups suggested they were looking forward to more independence)
- Followup surveys showed they were talking to parents an average of 10.4 times per week.
Hofer (and the older students who worked with her, who were just as surprised by the findings) located the source of this change in the ubiquity of cell phones.
The second study tackled the question – is this just a first-term thing, or does it persist? (Yes). The third study looked at students who had taken a gap year – did they report different patterns (No).
The fourth study expanded the population from Middlebury, looking at Middlebury students and students in a very different environment – the University of Michigan. It also expanded in scope – examining a cohort of students across four years.
The average number of times that families communicated was 13.4 times per week. Year in school didn’t matter. Which school didn’t matter. Variables like income, ethnicity and distance from home had no effect. Only gender had an effect and it was small (14.5 connections per week for girls, 11.3 for boys).
And this latest study also showed that neither side of this equation (students or parents) was driving the communication – both sides initiated about the same number of calls. Students indicated a general level of satisfaction with the amount of contact, but believed their parents would want more. A parent survey was added to see if that was true. About 30% said they’d like more contact. 88% of parents predicted that their children would report being satisfied with the amount of contact.
Interestingly, there seems to be a tension in when and why students call – sometimes it is because they feel they need the help (more on this in a minute) but another strong theme running through this data is the idea that these phone calls are “entertainment,” “filler,” or “something to do when I’m bored.”
In terms of help, the content of the calls does change over time. First-year students report needing more academic help — later, the times when help is needed, or offered, tends to cluster around milestones like picking a major, finding an internship, or choosing a career.
Upper-division students are more likely to report conversations where the primary topic is the parents‘ life or work.
So, this chapter was akin to the “results” section in a paper — it doesn’t really get into the “do these findings matter” piece — except in the teaser for the next chapter.
It also doesn’t really get into causality beyond the statements at the beginning where they were trying to figure out why the upper-division students involved in the study seemed more similar to the researchers in their expectations and reactions than like their fellow students.
I ended up with more questions than answers — the focus on number of contacts per week doesn’t allow for a lot of subtlety. A lot of the rest of the chapter pointed to ways to complicate these results, without really digging into them enough to actually complicate them –
- For example, “fix this problem for me” is a pretty different motivator than “I’m bored and I have a half mile to walk until I get to my next class” — particularly if you’re going to then be drawing connections between these behaviors and what we know about student development.
- Carrying that a little further, looking back to causality, it seems so intuitive as to be hard to examine that the “I’m bored” calls probably ARE tied to the fact that all of a sudden everyone carries around their phone all of the time, playing Angry Birds while walking is kind of hard, AND we don’t have to worry about minutes and charges when we’re talking to family? The “fix things for me” behaviors on the other hand – those seem to point to a more complex set of causes.
- Speaking of, I’m reading this book because it’s based, at least in substantial part, on actual research so I am glad that they chose to foreground the rest of the book WITH that research by putting it in chapter 2. I was going to say here that the numbers still point to many things – as just mentioned the bullet above, but that the anecdotes and stories pulled out of the qualitative data tend towards the “these kids today” narratives that exist in the popular media. But I’m actually not sure that’s true. Certainly, the student whose mom had all of the syllabi for his classes and who would call him to make sure he was meeting deadlines, etc. was extreme and vivid and memorable. But I think there may have been just as many examples of students telling stories like “I always call when I walk to the gym because I know there’s a built-in exit strategy out of the conversation.”
- Which leads to the last question – I hope later chapters dig more into the connections between the behaviors (making or accepting calls, sending emails, etc) and how students and parents think the others are perceiving those connections — they may be calling at equal rates, but what do those rates mean if you add in feelings of obligation, external motivators (like peer pressure), or all of those times when you wanted to call and didn’t?
- Finally, I am still hoping friends are part of this discussion, but it doesn’t look like they’re going to be.