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At college, still talking daily to Mom and Dad

Nineteen-year-old Taylor Matichak calls her mother several times a day, in between the flurry of text messages they send each another discussing academics, social life, or just daily chitchat.

Away at school, Taylor Matichak uses Skype to stay in touch with her mother, Debbie Matichak. (David Pierini/Chicago Tribune)
Away at school, Taylor Matichak uses Skype to stay in touch with her mother, Debbie Matichak. (David Pierini/Chicago Tribune)Read more

Nineteen-year-old Taylor Matichak calls her mother several times a day, in between the flurry of text messages they send each another discussing academics, social life, or just daily chitchat.

Though the sophomore at the University of Missouri-Columbia spends most of the year more than 300 miles from her family's home in Plainfield, Ill., 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, Debbie Matichak, 52, 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 begin a new academic year, many are finding that with cell phones, unlimited text-message plans, e-mail, Facebook, and Skype, they can have almost constant access to their parents.

"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 retard the independence of young adults 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 coauthor of the book The iConnected Parent: Staying Close to Your Kids in College (and Beyond) While Letting Them Grow Up.

"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 e-mails, though text messaging and Skype seem to be growing in popularity.

This is a marked shift from the parents' experience - they reported calling home about once a week when in college, making calls that often were 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 that 40 percent of adults use the Internet, e-mail, or instant messaging, up from 32 percent in 2009. Seventy-two percent of adults this year reported sending or receiving text messages, compared with 65 percent last year. Data also show that roughly three-quarters of 12-to-17-year-olds have cell phones, compared with 45 percent in 2004, which indicates it is likely teens are increasingly taking cell phones with them to college.

Hofer said problems arise when these electronic conversations enter "regulatory" territory: Parents reminding students about assignments, making course-scheduling decisions, monitoring posts on Facebook, or giving advice on how to handle basic conundrums of life, from questions about washing-machine settings to trouble with professors.

The immediacy of today's technology can also chip away at self-reliance, Hofer said. While past generations would call home on the weekend and review the events of the week, students are now able to call or text for feedback in the midst of a crisis. Hofer found that students often went straight to their parents rather than figuring out solutions or handling the emotional fallout on their own, as they would have been forced to do in previous years.

Another problem dips into academic dishonesty: Hofer said one in five students reported having parents edit 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 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 counterintuitive, 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.

While technology has undoubtedly increased contact between parents and college students, Boyle cautions against overgeneralizations about whether this is a positive or negative trend because each student's needs are different. While he sees a danger in mixing "helicopter parenting" with the array of electronics available today, he can also that see more contact with parents might be helpful if a student is going through a tough time.

"It's certainly better than the alternative, which is no communication at all," Boyle said. "There's a valid role for parents to play in terms of a support system."