Ahh … the cell phone. A great tool for keeping in touch, getting help in an emergency or calling home to see what groceries to pick up.
It’s also one of the most visible additions on the college campus scene in the last several years, says Karen Levin Coburn, assistant vice chancellor for students and associate dean for the freshman transition at Washington University in St. Louis.
Coburn is co-author of Letting Go: A Parents’ Guide to Understanding the College Years, which provides a comprehensive, down-to-earth guide for parents experiencing the varying emotions of parenting a college student. The book, now in its newly released fourth edition, has sold more than 300,000 copies since first being released in 1988.
“When we wrote our 1997 edition, very few people used cell phones. They just weren’t an issue,” Coburn says. “Now the majority of students have a cell phone and they’ve made a huge difference, pro and con, in the communication patterns between parents and students.”
According to the new edition of Letting Go, the “arrival of the ubiquitous cell phone has created not only convenience and ease of communication, but also a challenge to the process of letting go” by providing a way for students and parents to always be able to reach each other.
Coburn said one student even described the cell phone as an electronic leash. “It can be great to keep in touch, but it can be overdone. The cell phone really changes the dynamic and expectation of communication between parents and students,” Coburn says.
More than half of college students now own a cell phone, the authors report in Letting Go. That means “for many of today’s students there is an ever-present possibility of an available parent at the end of a ‘cordless tether’ — a fact that alarms many experts in adolescent development,” the authors write.
“I see it all the time,” Coburn says. “Students are walking around campus talking to their parents. ‘Hey, mom. Just got out of class. I’m bored. I just called to say hi.’ That can be positive, but it can also be a detriment to fostering independence.”
At the same time, parents are able to call anytime day or night. The cell phone can be an irresistible invitation to parental intrusions into a student’s day.
Quality, content of calls count
“In this edition of the book, we’ve really moved into another generation of parents,” Coburn says. “They’ve been more involved with their children all along and they expect to stay involved. College students still need their parents, and this generation of millennial kids are more likely to turn to their parents for advice than generations of the recent past.”
Coburn’s advice? There is no right or wrong way to communicate. She says some families prefer e-mail as a primary contact, reserving phone calls for weekends or special occasions. That also allows students to communicate at their own pace and to not be interrupted during class or time with friends. Others find that touching base everyday by phone, even for a minute or two, is comfortable and casual.
“Even more important than the frequency of the phone calls,” she adds, “is the quality and content of the conversation. The challenge is for parents to refrain from trying to orchestrate their children’s lives from afar, to support their growing independence and to encourage them to take action to solve their own problems.”
When it comes to keeping in touch,” Coburn says, each family will need to find its own way, “straddling that fine line between intrusion and desertion and remaining sensitive to the issues of control and independence, connection and separation, that are at the heart of all the logistics.”
Coburn co-wrote Letting Go with Madge Lawrence Treeger, a longtime member of Washington University’s Counseling Service, who is now a psychotherapist in private practice in St. Louis. The book is published by HarperCollins and is available at Amazon.com and most bookstores.