Forever young: students tied to the electronic apron strings

'iParenting' technology is discouraging a generation from growing up, psychologist warns. Jon Marcus reports

June 24, 2010

Aaron Camillo, a student entering his second year at the University of South Carolina, checks his mobile phone as he leaves class.

His mother, Mr Camillo explained, is among his Facebook friends, "and every time I change my status she posts on my wall to see if I'm OK". Other students in the hallway laugh and nod in recognition.

University administrators and faculty are less amused. For them, Mr Camillo's mother is an example of a worldwide phenomenon that is causing unprecedented problems in the short term, and threatens long-term harm by forestalling young people's adulthoods.

This argument is set out in full in a forthcoming book, a phrase from which is sure to give the trend a name: "iParenting".

Take a generation of well-educated, highly motivated parents, say the authors, who have fewer children later in life. Charge students cripplingly high fees for university tuition, even as job prospects grow dimmer, in a world parents perceive to be rife with danger.

Then add mobile phones, email and social networking to the mix.

This is an environment that is making some higher education professionals yearn for the days of plain old "helicopter parents" hovering over their offspring.

"These are parents who already know how to micromanage. Now they can continue it with the use of technology that is simply unprecedented," said Barbara Hofer, professor of psychology at Middlebury College in Vermont.

She and New York Times journalist Abigail Sullivan Moore have co-authored the book The iConnected Parent: Staying Close to Your Kids in College (and Beyond) While Letting Them Grow Up, which is due to be published in August.

"In the absence of the technology, parents wouldn't be capable of this daily intervention," she added. "We're talking about a shift that happened so quickly there hasn't been time for people to adjust to it."

In a survey on the Middlebury campus conducted in 2005, Dr Hofer found that first-year students expected to communicate with their parents once a week. In fact, they ended up calling, texting or emailing 10.4 times a week. By the next year, when she widened the survey to include the much larger University of Michigan, that number had risen to 13.4 times a week.

Nor was it only parents who initiated contact. Students called them almost as often, and daughters only slightly more often than sons - 14.3 times a week versus 11.3. Both groups spoke more with their mothers than their fathers.

"Visit any campus at the change of classes and watch the students stream out of buildings to cross green-covered quads or concrete plazas," write the authors. "As if on cue they whip out their cellphones."

And they are doing more than trading pleasantries or planning holiday visits.

Among other things, they are emailing home their assignments: 19 per cent of students surveyed say their parents proofread their university papers, often in apparent violation of institutional rules.

Tutors report finding tracked changes and parents' comments embedded in the text of students' work that had been submitted electronically. One instance of plagiarism at a US university was traced to a student's mother.

"It just intrigues me that this is something students don't have any problem doing," Dr Hofer said. "It's just a fact of life to them."

No end to the tether

The book also reports that students' parents are contacting staff directly to ask for assignment extensions for their children, discuss their grades or get copies of class schedules so that they can check that their offspring are meeting their deadlines.

Some students even give their parents the passwords they need to register for, or change, courses. Administrators also tell of students calling their parents in the midst of disciplinary procedures.

Not surprisingly, Dr Hofer found that those who have the most contact with their parents are "the least likely to have achieved some of the psychological benchmarks of independence that in the past would have been typical of this age".

Universities, which are already offering "letting-go" seminars for the parents of new students, are struggling to cope with the pervasive way technology encourages the opposite, Dr Hofer said.

She has also found evidence of the "electronic tether" stretching beyond graduation.

The book cites instances in which university graduates brought mobile phones to job interviews so that their parents could listen in and offer feedback.

Nor is this solely an American phenomenon. In fact, US students are relatively independent compared with their counterparts in Brazil, who are sometimes called "kangaroo kids" for hopping back into the parental pouch after graduating, or in Japan, where they are derisively known as "parasite singles".

"It's a ubiquitous phenomenon," Dr Hofer said. "People are taking longer and longer to grow up. You have got this long period in their twenties when young people are not becoming the engaged members of society that we expect them to be."

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