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Phone Home: Tech Draws Parents, College Kids Closer

University of North Carolina sophomore Julia-Scott Dawson (left) and her mother, Robin, use text-messaging, email and social media to stay in touch.
Courtesy of Robin Dawson
University of North Carolina sophomore Julia-Scott Dawson (left) and her mother, Robin, use text-messaging, email and social media to stay in touch.

From breakfast to bedtime, college sophomore Julia-Scott Dawson and her mother, Robin Dawson, exchange a flurry of texts that include I love you's, inside jokes and casual chitchat.

"We talk every day," Dawson says.

"Every day," echoes her mother.

Julia-Scott Dawson is a sophomore at the University of North Carolina, which is just a 15-minute drive from where her parents live. Every week, she shares a Sunday meal with her family and grabs morning coffee with her parents when they can.

"I just love the time I spend with them," Dawson says.

The ongoing stream of communication may sound like a lot, but studies say it's not too unusual.

College students communicate with their parents on average 13.4 times a week, says Barbara Hofer, a psychology professor at Vermont's Middlebury College and co-author of The iConnected Parent: Staying Close to Your Kids in College (and Beyond) While Letting Them Grow Up.

A more recent study illustrates similar parent-child trends. Research featured in Generation on a Tightrope: A Portrait of Today's College Student by Arthur Levine and Diane Dean shows that about 40 percent of college students are in touch with parents by phone, email, text or visit at minimum once a day.

College Offices For Parents

Three-quarters of colleges report increased parent involvement in their children's lives and college affairs, Dean and Levine say.

In response to that growing involvement, many universities have built offices of parent services.

"When I went to school, back in the dark ages, your parents dropped you off at the curb, you went in [and] you unpacked," say Rodney Johnson, executive director of George Washington University's Office of Parent Services. "Things have changed."

The office at the Washington, D.C., university was one of the first of its kind in the early 1990s. Today, about 30 percent of colleges have similar services to respond to the questions and anxieties of parents. Similarly, more than 90 percent of colleges offer a specific orientation for parents of freshmen before the start of classes.

"Our job is to do it in a positive way, to say, 'Mom and dad, you need to back off a little bit, let your sons and daughters take care of this,'" Johnson says.

About 15 calls and emails come through the office each day. That's about 2,500 calls a year.

The stakes are higher than they were in previous generations, Johnson says. The cost of college has rocketed, entrance exams are tougher, and parents are simply more invested in their children's happiness and success.

Many students, however, won't admit to having so-called helicopter parents and say their parents are simply concerned about what's going on in their lives.

Jon Gould, author of How to Succeed in College (While Really Trying), says many college students expect a high level of communication with their parents.

"When I talk to students, they're not offended that their parents call them," says Gould, a professor at D.C.'s American University. "They actually enjoy the fact that their parents are involved. But the real challenge is for parents to realize where the dividing line is of being involved and concerned, and taking control of their students' lives."

Almost every professor, he says, is familiar with the horror stories: anecdotes of parents with off-the-wall requests like whether they can stay in the dorms or attend classes with their children. Sure, the accounts are rare, he says, but they exist.

Tech Keeps Parents Close

Advances in technology have made it progressively easier for parents to keep up to date with the daily lives of their children.

For example, Robin Dawson says she relies heavily on Facebook and text-messaging throughout the day to drop sweet notes or just say hello to her daughter, Julia-Scott.

"I'm friends with my daughter on Facebook, I'm friends with most of her friends on Facebook, and she's friends with most of my friends on Facebook," Robin Dawson says.

A generation ago, if Robin Dawson wanted to talk with her mother, she waited in line to make a collect call home. Of course, snail mail was an option, too.

While modern technology can lead to overwhelming parent-child relationships, says American University's Gould, it has also helped to strengthen the bonds.

"One thing that's different about the generation of parents and kids today is that they grew up for the most part liking one another," Gould says. "And that's different than ... the baby boomers that grew up rebelling against their parents."

Robin Dawson says she can't imagine a world without constant communication with her daughter.

"I just love her," she says. "I love having the time with her and — this is going to make me cry — I just love having the time with my kid."

But she insists she is not a helicopter parent; rather, she's more like a coach on the sidelines, she says, cheering her daughter on.

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Reema Khrais joined WUNC in 2013 to cover education in pre-kindergarten through high school. Previously, she won the prestigious Joan B. Kroc Fellowship. For the fellowship, she spent a year at NPR where she reported nationally, produced on Weekends on All Things Considered and edited on the digital desk. She also spent some time at New York Public Radio as an education reporter, covering the overhaul of vocational schools, the contentious closures of city schools and age-old high school rivalries.