the iConnected Parent, Chapter 2

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?”

black and white comic strip featuring a man talking to his wife about his daughter

(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.

My reactions

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.

happy birthday to me from delicious, kind of

I don’t have an iPhone, so there are many web sites I’d like to use on my phone that just don’t look very good. Delicious has always been one of those middle-ground sites that looks okay because there just isn’t much to it, but that isn’t really optimal. There’s always been a lot of stuff to navigate through before you get to your bookmarks – like your list of tags. And if you have a crazy long tag list like I do, that’s a real hardship.

So I was pretty happy to see that there is a mobile delicious option now.

I’m not sure it’s 100% awesome. It’s basically, login, list of bookmarks, and the ability to filter by tag (if you know the tag you want). I think for most of what I want to do, this will do.

horrible mac photo booth photo of my non iPhone
horrible mac photo booth photo of my non iPhone

But I don’t see an option to search my bookmarks and as someone who frequently makes the case in presentations that the searchability delicious offers is one of its best features, that might be a problem. Still, as a friend of mine just said to me on another topic – “progress – yay!”

in their flow

When I saw the Matrix for the first time, I was enthusiastic about it, but I don’t remember thinking it was particularly special.  We see almost a movie a week in the theater, and I had no expectation that this one was going to have any kind of intellectual staying power for me.  But for the next few days, I would catch myself thinking about it in slow times.  I didn’t think so much about the content of the movie – the matrix itself – but about the look and feel, the fight choreography, the art direction and the visuals. 

And then later, when we saw the Phantom Menace, I disliked many, many things about it.  I was surprised to realize that one of those things was — it just didn’t look very cool.  As important as the original Star Wars films had been to me, movies that looked like that just didn’t do it for me any more.  It wasn’t just The Matrix that led me to this, of course, and The Matrix itself references a bunch of other stuff that I also like, but something about it came together and pushed my thinking about what studio-produced action movies could be.

So I didn’t notice it until later, but I had taken the blue pill when I saw that movie.  Seeing it affected how I saw things from that point on.  This happens to me with other things too, especially things I read.  I read a lot of things every day, and take a little bit from this and a little bit from that.  But every once in a while I read something that really really changes the way I see almost everything else.  And most of the time, I don’t realize that right away.  I read it, think "that makes sense," and don’t really realize its impact until I notice that I’ve come back to it over and over again.

Lorcan Dempsey’s In the flow is one of those blue-pill readings.

When I first read it, I thought it was just a more nuanced and useful way of thinking about the idea that libraries need to "be where the users are" — a phrase that I have heard about one million times since becoming a librarian, but about which I am still ambivalent despite the repetition.  And on one level, it is a more nuanced way of considering that concept.  I pull it out frequently as a corrective when faced with a service idea that just doesn’t make sense to me — is doing reference via texting just being where they are?  Or is it being in their flow?  I think it might be the former.

Dempsey says there are two themes that recur in discussions about flow.  The first emphasizes being where they are —

the library needs to be in the user environment and not expect the user to find their way to the library environment

The second, though, goes beyond this —

integration of library resources should not be seen as an end in itself
but as a means to better integration with the user environment, with

Being in the users’ flow isn’t an end in itself – it goes way beyond just being where they are.  To do it, we need to understand what our users are doing when they are where they are.  And to understand how they are doing it, what they are to do it, and what they would like to be using. 

The first time I saw something that really illustrated the difference between being in the users flow and just being where they are was when I read about the University of Washington Libraries’ putting links to their collections in relevant Wikipedia articles.  The other day, John Pollitz sent me a link to another.  This is totally awesome — the University of Oregon has added a button to their library catalog records that allows users to text the call number information to their own cell phones.  Jason Eiseman has a nice summary (with screenshots!) of it on his blog.  We talk a lot in higher ed about how all of our students have cell phones, they’re addicted to their cell phones, they’re never without their cell phones.  And that’s all true.  But they don’t use them for everything.  And this is a simple little thing that lets them use their cell phones in a way that they are already using them to do a thing that they’re already doing.  That’s being in their workflow.  That’s putting ourselves where they are in a way that makes sense.  And that’s just awesome.