College students stay connected with parents’ apron strings via technology

CHICAGO – Nineteen-year-old Taylor Matichak calls her mom several times a day, in between the flurry of text messages they send one another discussing academics, social life or just daily chit-chat.

Though the sophomore at the University of Missouri in Columbia spends most of the year more than 300 miles from her family’s Plainfield, Ill., home, the distance seems to evaporate with technology.

“I like it because we can stay close,” said the teen, who says she initiates most of the calls and texts.

It’s profoundly different from the college days of her mother, 52-year-old Debbie Matichak, who remembers waiting in long lines at her dormitory pay phone to make the obligatory Sunday collect call home.

Keeping in touch with parents was more expensive and time-consuming when she attended the University of Denver three decades ago. But as college students prepare to descend on campuses in the coming weeks, many are finding that with the ease of cell phones, unlimited text message plans, email, Facebook and Skype, they can have near-constant access to mom and dad.

“It’s changed the experience of being away at college,” said James Boyle, president of College Parents of America, based in Arlington, Va. “A generation ago, when your parents said goodbye and drove away, many (students) didn’t see their parents again until Thanksgiving.”

But some experts fear this communication shift could hamper the independence of older teens at a time when they traditionally come into their own.

“Sometimes these students are not being as autonomous or self-sufficient as they should be,” said Barbara Hofer, psychology professor at Middlebury College in Vermont and co-author of the book “The iConnected Parent: Staying Close to Your Kids in College (and Beyond) While Letting Them Grow Up,” which is being released this month.

“Staying close is different than being dependent,” she said.

Her 2008 study of students at Middlebury and the University of Michigan found that students on average contacted their parents 13 times a week, mainly via cell phone calls and emails, though text messaging and Skype seem to be growing in popularity.

This is a marked shift from the students’ parents, who reported calling home about once a week when in college, making calls that were often three minutes long or less because the costs were so high.

Much of the change stems from the rising use of technology among all age groups. A Pew Research Center survey this year found 40 percent of adults use the internet, email or instant messaging, up from the 32 percent in 2009. Seventy-two percent of adults this year reported sending or receiving text messages compared to 65 percent last year.

Data also shows that roughly three-quarters of 12-to-17-year-olds own cell phones compared to 45 percent in 2004, which indicates that it’s likely teens are increasingly taking cell phones with them to college.

Hofer said problems arise when these electronic conversations enter “regulatory” territory: Parents reminding their student about assignments, making course schedule decisions, monitoring posts on Facebook or telling the child how to handle basic conundrums of life, from questions about washing machine settings to trouble with professors.

Another problem dips into academic dishonesty: Hofer said one in five students reported having their parents edit their papers online, a practice that might violate the honor codes of many colleges and universities. While helping a child with a paper at the kitchen table in junior high or high school might be appropriate, sending a paper back and forth for editing can amount to the parent doing all the work, which means the student isn’t learning to do it alone, Hofer said.

She recommends parents shift conversations to helping students learn how to make the decision or solve the problem rather than giving answers, a practice that must start when the student is an adolescent living at home.

Winnetka, Ill., parent Deb Guy, 55, said it takes discipline to structure communication appropriately because it’s so easy for teens or parents to make a quick phone call. She sees a lot of parents making decisions for their teens or young adults, and agrees that separation needs to start earlier than the day a child is sent to college.

“(Parents) want to be there, but they need to let go,” she said. “They need to send their child back to the problem.”

It might sound counter-intuitive, but Guy said one of her most gratifying times as a parent stemmed from lack of communication with her daughter Madalyn Guy, who was 19 last semester and studying in Rome without access to a cell phone. Madalyn had to navigate a foreign city, choose her courses ­— even go to the emergency room once — without her mother’s help.

Deb Guy found the lack of communication unnerving at first. But when she visited Madalyn abroad, she was proud to watch as her daughter took charge and made plans, as an adult would.

“She made every decision on her own, and I saw the value of that,” she said.