Just a few years ago, psychology professor Barbara Hofer noticed something different among her first-year students. On any given day, as soon as class was over, they would flip open their cell phones and make a call. She noticed that even the seniors on campus were startled by how readily first-years used their phones.
Curious about this new behavior, she conducted some research and soon discovered that a “sweeping cultural change” was taking place. Not only were students heavily connected to each other by cell, they were also heavily connected to their parents. The amount of contact between young people and their parents had increased exponentially. “It happened over night,” she said, and it seemed to be pervasive. She was alarmed about some of the ramifications.
Hofer’s findings launched more research, in collaboration with undergraduates; a coauthored book on the subject; and many appearances around the country. During Homecoming Weekend, she described her work to an enthralled group of alumni, many who remembered how they used to call home—from dorm pay phones.
Hofer’s findings show that there is an “electronic tether” connecting young people with their parents in a profoundly new way. Whereas a generation ago, students thought of themselves as adult and independent and they called home perhaps once a week, today’s students and parents communicate approximately 13 times weekly, each initiating about half the calls.
“Parents report that they are a lot closer to their kids than they were to their parents,” Hofer said. She pointed out that the amount and the content of the communication is very important in helping students gain autonomy. “The challenge is to remain connected in a healthy way.”
What concerns Hofer is that the electronic tether tends to create a dependency that prevents students from learning to regulate their own behavior or to handle their own disappointments and challenges. Instead of figuring out how to deal with a problem, they can be in touch with a caring parent almost instantly. This level of contact also prevents some parents from developing the skills and responses that would bolster independence.
Hofer described cases in which parents regulate their children’s activities from afar, keeping their course syllabi and reminding them of papers and tests, for example, or editing their papers. She described one student’s answer to this question: “When will you know you are an adult?” The answer: “When my mom stops calling me three times a day.”
But Hofer was quick to point out that this does not mean that parents should simply “let go,” as is sometimes suggested. What parents need, she believes, is to find healthy ways to back off a bit while staying connected, a thoughtful balance that encourages students to use their own internal resources and the resources of the institution.
Or, perhaps, it will suffice to simply turn the phone off.