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Tethered to mother at college

When University of Florida administrator Jeanna Mastrodicasa was a student living in a dorm at the University of Georgia, she had to dial collect to call home. And she didn't do it all that often.

Fast forward two decades, and you find college students like Tiana Johnson, who talks to her mother every day, "maybe every couple of hours." The two also exchange frequent text messages. And they're connected through Facebook, the increasingly popular social networking site that allows Tiana's mother to see pictures and "status updates" documenting Tiana's college experience.

"We talk about family stuff, what I have to do," says Tiana, 18, who tomorrow starts her second year at the University of South Florida. "It's really just to check up."

So much for going away to college and finding your independence. The umbilical cord is now wireless.

With affordable cell phones and instant, 24-hour social tools like Facebook and Twitter, more and more college students today remain close to home, no matter how far away their campus is.

Technology makes it easier than ever for parents to hover, and the college years become just an extended version of high school.

Researchers in academia call this phenomenon the "electronic tether." And they are very concerned.

"When a student and parent are calling and texting all day, what happens is the kid has the parent in their head, so there is not that liberation there once was in college to just make your own decisions," said Middlebury College psychology professor Barbara Hofer. "There is not a lot of independent decisionmaking going on.

"It's a serious concern in terms of who they become in the workplace and in society."

Mastrodicasa, assistant vice president for student affairs at UF, researches the relationship between technology and "millennials," the generation born after 1980.

A few years back, she surveyed 8,000 college students across the country. The findings point to a generation that is far closer and more dependent on their parents than previous generations.

Example: UF researchers asked students how often they talk to their parents on the phone; the results showed a median of 1.5 times a day. Sixty-seven percent of the students said they regularly talk to their parents about their social lives.

"That's very different than other generations," Mastrodicasa said. "It's the whole parents trying to be friends. There are a lot fewer secrets now between students and their parents."

Hofer, the psychology professor, did a similar study of 1,000 undergraduates at Middlebury and the University of Michigan.

One in five students surveyed said they have sent papers to their parents, usually via e-mail, for proofreading. The students, and not just freshmen, reported communicating with their parents roughly 13 times a week through e-mail and cell phone.

One of the students Hofer surveyed said his mother had the syllabi for all four of his courses.

His mother checked in daily: Did you finish this reading assignment? Is your essay done?

"This is a kid that is not becoming the self-regulated learner that college is supposed to create," Hofer said.

She teaches a course on adolescent development and a theory called "emerging adulthood."

A better term might be delayed adulthood. It refers to the developmental phase between 18 and 35 when people want the rights of adulthood — but do not assume all the responsibilities that go with it.

Hofer has found, by following up with students after they graduate, that they lean heavily on their parents even after they have a diploma.

"We're already hearing stories about graduates who say, 'I can't accept that salary offer until I talk to my parents,' " Hofer said. "Or they actually bring their parents to the job interview."

Sure, some of this is anecdotal. But the survey results say a lot. And when I was in college in the mid '90s at UF, these hovering parents were not so prevalent. Nor were there so many "cling-to-Mom" students.

I kept more than a few things from my parents and grandparents, and it didn't spell the end of me or of them.

Back then, we didn't all have cell phones. It would be a few years before Facebook took off. "Tweet" was literally a term reserved for the birds.

Keeping in constant touch with home was not desired or expected. I certainly would not have wanted them tracking me on Facebook or bombarding me with text messages.

Yet parents today often seem to want to experience college through their children, Mastrodicasa said. Or at least to control what their children experience.

Every year during freshman orientation, UF separates students from parents during class registration.

"There's always a meltdown," Mastrodicasa said, "Because the parents want to be there when their kids pick their classes."

Hofer said Middlebury College has given up trying to force students into deciding on classes themselves.

"I watch it happen every time. The students just whip out their cell phones and send Mom a text."

Shannon Colavecchio can be reached at scolavecchio@sptimes.com or (850) 224-7263.

Tethered to mother at college 08/24/09 [Last modified: Tuesday, August 25, 2009 11:42am]

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