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Electronic Umbilical Cord

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A long time ago, in a pre-digital era far, far away, college students called their parents once a week, using a phone card and an artifact known as a pay phone. Except for health or money emergencies that was the extent of contact with parents: once a week.

Not anymore. First it was cell phones and now texting and instant messaging have replaced that weekly call... and replaced it and replaced it. As the class of 2015 heads off to college this month, parents, many accustomed to keep tabs on their teens via cell phones, don't have to worry about losing contact. In a study conducted at Middlebury College and the University of Michigan, Middlebury College Prof. Barbara Hofer found that college students text, phone and email their parents an average of 13 times a week.

Texting has become an "electronic tether," according to Prof. Hoffer who finds that all that digital hand holding is counterproductive, especially for college freshmen. The first year is the time when these fledgling young adults should be learning to make their own decisions about such pressing matters as classes, partying and how to do laundry, not constantly texting mom to find out what she thinks.

Texting parents does not end after the student makes it successfully through freshman year. A discussion among my class of NYU juniors and seniors got lively when the topic of texting came up. Many students admitted that they text and talk to parents -- mostly moms -- several times a day. What do they text about?

"My mother texts all the time asking questions like 'Did you go to the gym today?'"
"My mom texts just to see what I am doing."
"If I don't answer the cell phone my mom texts to see if I am okay."

It's understandable that parents are concerned about how that hard-earned $50,000 annual tuition and board is being spent. But is all this texting a good or bad? The students were unsure, and were resigned that there was no way to stop parents from texting short of turning off the phone -- and they certainly weren't going to do that! Several students mentioned that they preferred texting to talking on their phones to their parents as it was less intrusive and took less time. Another plus: No one knows you're texting a parent instead of a friend so it's less socially awkward.

Of course, texting is just one form of electronic umbilical cord. Many students keep in contact with parents via Skype or iChat, especially when they are on a semester abroad --supposedly learning to make their own way through foreign lands. While my daughter was in Italy last spring last semester we iChatted several times weekly. For one, it was cheaper than the cell phone, and it was to reassuring to be able to actually see her while we talked. Most of my NYU students had the same routine except one who stopped because it made her too "homesick" to see her family gathered around the laptop in their comfy living room while she lived in a tiny bedroom in a host family house.

Some psychologists, like MIT professor Sherry Turkle, argue that the electronic umbilical cord needs to be cut. In her book, Alone Together Prof. Turkle writes about the "Huck Finn" moment when young adults are supposed sail off alone down the Mississippi. But technology keeps them tethered to their parents, hindering them from developing independence.

Still, try asking baby boomer parents who have devoted considerable emotional and economic efforts to getting their child into college to ditch the cell phone. It's even hard to get parents to leave at the close of freshmen drop-off weekend. Many colleges around the country have instituted events specially designed to get the parents to exit and not look back. At my son's college a few years ago, the university president made it quite clear at the closing ceremony: Parents leave the auditorium now and students stay in your seats. Of course, what made driving off into the sunset easier was texting on the way home!