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Going to College and Staying Connected: Communication Between College Freshmen and Their Parents

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Going to College and Staying Connected: Communication Between College Freshmen and Their Parents Madeline E. Smith 1, Duyen T. Nguyen 2, Charles Lai 1, Gilly Leshed 2, Eric P. S. Baumer 1,2 Department
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Going to College and Staying Connected: Communication Between College Freshmen and Their Parents Madeline E. Smith 1, Duyen T. Nguyen 2, Charles Lai 1, Gilly Leshed 2, Eric P. S. Baumer 1,2 Department of Information Science 1 Department Of Communication 2 Cornell University Cornell University Ithaca, NY Ithaca, NY {mes369, tn248, ckl22, gl87, ABSTRACT For many first-year college students in their late teen years, communicating with parents provides crucial social support. When going to college involves moving away from home for the first time, students and their parents must rely on technologies to keep communication channels open. We studied the ways in which college freshmen communicate with their parents and the various communication technologies they use. Interviews with nineteen first-year students at a major United States university revealed insights into students perspectives of their communication and relationships with parents. We found students to use a variety of tools to connect with their parents and identified some considerations they make when choosing tools. Furthermore, the use of these communication tools played a significant role in mediating students social and emotional closeness with, and independence from, their parents. We conclude by discussing technical and social implications for social support of students and student-parent relationships. Author Keywords Communication, domestic, parents, college students, CMC. ACM Classification Keywords H5.3. Information interfaces and presentation: Group and Organization Interfaces CSCW. General Terms Human Factors, Design. Permission to make digital or hard copies of all or part of this work for personal or classroom use is granted without fee provided that copies are not made or distributed for profit or commercial advantage and that copies bear this notice and the full citation on the first page. To copy otherwise, or republish, to post on servers or to redistribute to lists, requires prior specific permission and/or a fee. CSCW 2012, February 11 15, 2012, Seattle, Washington. Copyright 2011 ACM /12/02...$ INTRODUCTION Going to college is a major turning point in the lives of many young people. For many high school graduates in the United States, this also involves a residential move away from home, which is in itself a major life event for both students and parents [17]. This move may bring loneliness and reduced social support [21] and the possibility of widening emotional distance from family, especially parents. Reduced connections with parents can have negative impacts on academic performance and social well-being [18, 28]. These negative impacts may be most severe for firstyear students who are just beginning to adjust to the college environment and independent life away from home. Thus we feel it is important to study the connection between firstyear college students and their parents. Shklovski et al. [28] proposed that Internet use for communication with family and friends may help relieve some of the psychological tensions of a residential move. Today s college students combine Internet use and other communication technologies to communicate with family at home. It is therefore interesting to examine how the use of such communication technologies can impact student-parent relationships. Previous studies have looked at the impact of leaving home for college on the development of student-parent relationships [10,32] and the use of communication technologies among college students [22]. However, little is known about college students, specifically first-year students, use of technology for communication with their parents. Moreover, there has been little work that explored how the use of communication technologies impacts student-parent relationships. Our study hopes to bridge these gaps in the literature and contribute to the understanding of both technical and social aspects of communication technologies used by first-year college students to connect with parents. In this study we examined the ways in which college freshmen communicate with their parents and the various communication technologies they use, focusing on the following research questions: 1. How do first-year college students who are away from home for the first time choose among and manage multiple tools for communicating with their parents? 2. How do these communication tools contribute to the changes in student-parent relationships during this period? We conducted semi-structured interviews with first-year students at a major United States university. Based on qualitative analysis, we identified several themes in stu- 1 dents practices for choosing and using different media to communicate with their parents: convenience, social cues, managing multiple media, the perceived generation gap, and face management. We also found the students we interviewed generally perceived the different technologies including phone, texting, , instant messaging, video calls and social media to have a positive impact on the relationships with their parents. This paper contributes in three unique ways: First, we explore the communication practices of first-year college students with their parents, a group that has not been well documented in the CSCW literature. Second, we provide a technical understanding of communication technologies that are currently available and how a sample of users from this population uses them. Third, we investigate the roles technological tools play in these significant and changing familial relationships. In the remainder of this paper we review related work, describe of our research methods, present our detailed results, and discuss the implications thereof. RELATED WORK Student-Parent Relationship & Environment Adjustment Previous research has examined relationships between parents and college freshmen, and how these relationships can affect students transition to their new college environments. Flanagan et al. [10] compared the ways that studentparent relationships differed for those students who moved away compared to those who continued to live with their parents, and suggested that the student s process of individuation and redefinition of their relationships with parents might be more problematic for students who still lived at home. Attending college away from home gives the adolescent opportunities to make decisions with less parental support (and monitoring), and may be related to positive perceptions by both the student and parents. Wintre & Yaffe [30] found that good student-parent relationships benefited students perceived adjustment to the new college environment. Students who feel their parents are responsive to their needs find it easier to adjust socioemotionally during the transition from high-school to college, even when this involves moving away from home [20]. Communication Tool Use Among Students & Parents A growing body of research investigates teenagers and adolescents use of various Computer-Mediated Communication (CMC) tools, with some focusing on college students. These studies concentrate primarily on two groups of CMC tools: mobile and Internet technologies. In the area of mobile technologies, Aoki & Downes [3] looked into the mobile phone use of college students from the behavioral and psychological views, and derived several major themes on the purposes of having cell phones. Notably, some of the participants mentioned their parents while discussing these themes, such as personal safety (e.g., reaching parents in case of emergencies), social interaction, and parental contacts (e.g., keeping in touch with parents). Chen & Katz [6] also found that cell phones for students were a must in maintaining contact with family, especially for fulfilling family roles and sharing experiences and emotional support. Internet technologies have also been very popular among students and well-documented. Students have been found to use more communication media than college faculty and staff [22], including , social networking sites (SNS), cell phones and voice over IP (VOIP) services. Some of this Internet use is for coping with loneliness, seeking social support, and maintaining family relationships [13]. Even high school seniors still living at home use social networking sites not only for quick and convenient communication with friends, but also to maintain social relationships with family members [2]. There has also been some research exploring parent s perspectives of using communication tools to connect with teenage children. Yardi & Bruckman [33] found that parents struggled with the generation gap between themselves and their teen children in the adoption of and adaptation to new communication technologies. However this study did not focus on parents of children away at college. Communication Between College Students & Parents Other research has specifically targeted communication between college students and their parents. In 1995, Johnson et al. [18] found that new students moving away from home felt it necessary to stay in touch with family (especially with parents), and when such family communication was not continued on a regular basis, student-parent relationships can suffer. Sax & Wartman [25] found that over the past two decades college students are increasingly maintaining closer ties with their parents and are communicating with them more frequently. Their findings suggest that these strong student-parent relationships can have positive impacts on students adjustment to college, identity development and career exploration. Hofer [15] also documented an increase in frequency of college student-parent communication, finding an average of communicating 13 times per week in However, more communication wasn t always positive; students who communicated more frequently with their parents also had lower levels of autonomy. High levels of communication with parents often remain consistent over the four years of college, while parents often wish for more contact than students are comfortable providing [16]. Gentzler et al. [12] studied college students use of four common means of communication with their parents: phone, text messaging, and SNSs. Students feeling of loneliness was positively correlated with high frequency of SNS use with parents, while frequency of phone communication was correlated with satisfaction of the parental relationship, high intimacy, support, and instrumental aid. 2 To sum, previous research has found the importance of maintaining a balanced parent-student relationship for college students, and the overall increase in the use of communication technologies by students and parents to maintain this relationship. Our goal in this exploratory study is to understand qualitatively the point of view of the students and the kinds of interpretations they make of the communication tools they use, their relationships with their parents, and how the two are connected. Our study thus complements previous research that focused on the parents perspective or on quantifiable measurements of use frequencies and behavior and perceptions measures. We do not focus on measurable frequencies of use, but instead on the idiosyncratic ways in which students choose and use these tools to communicate with their parents, and the understandings they make of the different features and characteristic of these tools in influencing the student-parent relationship. METHOD Participants Nineteen students in a major United States university were recruited for an interview through a university-wide study recruitment system. Students were compensated with extracredit for a course of their choice with instructor approval or $10 for their participation. All participants were American first-year students who lived on campus and whose parents lived in the United States. We decided to recruit American students only (as opposed to including international students) because we wanted to focus on a more homogeneous group of students for this initial exploratory study. Since this study focuses specifically on students experiences and perspectives, parents were not interviewed. Students represented a range of curricula, including engineering, arts, and sciences. We interviewed 16 female and 3 male students, all 18 or 19 years old. Students came to this university from various places across the country, as close as 50 miles from the university and as far as 2,700 miles away (mean 513 miles). No participant had lived away from home for an extended period of time before going to college. At the time of the interviews, 11 participants indicated their parents were married and 8 divorced (these students chose to discuss one or both parents during the interview). Table 1 lists participants pseudonyms, genders and the technologies they discussed using to communicate with their parents. Procedure We conducted semi-structured interviews with first-year American college students. Each student was interviewed for up to one hour by one of the researchers in an oncampus interview room during April Interviews began with general questions about the student, the student s parents, and how they saw their relationships both before and after the student moved to college. The bulk of the interview focused on the various communication tools they used to interact with their parents. The communication tools Name Sex Technologies Used With Parents Phone Text VidCall SNS IM Sarah F X X X X Emily F X X Steph F X Mike M X X X X X Megan F X X X X Jenna F X X X Kayla F X X Lisa F X X Chris M X X X X X Julia F X X X X X Jamie F X X X Leah F X X X X Erica F X X X Maria F X X X Erin F X X Allie F X X X X X Matt M X X X X X Molly F X X X Ariel F X X X X Table 1. Interview participants (pseudonyms and genders) and the communication technologies they use with their parents. we focused on were phone calls, texting (SMS), instant messaging (IM), video calling, , and SNSs. We also asked participants about using blogs, shared tools, shared calendars, and location-based services with their parents, however no student used these tools with their parents, so we do not discuss them in this paper. These tools were chosen due to their prevalence in modern society, and proved to be an exhaustive list; when asked, participants indicated no other communication tools that they used with their parents. For each tool they reported using with their parents, students were asked to describe both their typical and most recent uses of the tool, their motivations for using this tool, and their understanding and valuing of the roles the tool plays in managing the relationships with their parents. For those tools they did not have experience using with their parents, students speculated why this was and how it might or might not be useful for them. At the end of the interview, participants ranked the technologies they used with their parents in terms of frequency of use, usefulness, favorite, and impact on their relationships. We also asked participants how communication technology might be changed in the future to better support student-parent relationships. Analysis All interviews were audio recorded and individually reviewed several times by three of the researchers. Partial transcripts were made when the participant described ideas relevant to the research questions. The three researchers then met and used an open-coding technique to identify the general themes that transpired through the data. This process took place iteratively while developing and organizing the themes described below. RESULTS We structure this section in two parts related to the two research questions we posed above. The first part illustrates 3 the ways first-year college students choose and use different communication technologies to communicate with their parents. In the second part we present our findings as to how these technologies contribute to the development of the student-parent relationship in terms of support for the students adjustment to college and social well-being. Choosing & Using Communication Tools With a wide range of communication technologies available, participants described several considerations when choosing which communication tools to use with their parents. Convenience The most common consideration students mentioned was the convenience of using the tool. Not surprisingly, tools allowing for easy, immediate, and efficient communication were preferred. For this reason, cell phones were considered very convenient and reported as the most widely used communication tool with parents, both for phone calls (all 19 students) and for texting (13 students). Participants frequently described conveniently talking on the phone with their parents while they were walking around campus: I like to do it walking to or from classes, because that's a time when I know I can't really get anything else done so I'm not losing productivity. Chris Participants considered texting more convenient than calling because of its asynchronicity, which allowed them to respond at their convenience instead of being expected to respond immediately. Similarly, they often chose texting when they did not know their parents availability and wanted to communicate without interrupting: [I prefer texting] if I have to ask them something in the middle of the day; I don t have to find a time to call them or find a time they re not working to then call. Maria Students also found the asynchronicity of useful. For example, Allie described using to share things with her family when she does not need them to get the information and respond right away. In contrast, participants considered IM and video calling to be less convenient and used them less often than phone calls or texting because both parties must be at a computer at the same time. When students did video call with their parents they often first used texting or phone calls to coordinate the video call, consistent with [19]. However, for some parents, the technical barriers of video calling made it inaccessible: I would love for her to just get a high-speed line and a webcam and then we could just talk like that. Leah Although these findings may seem obvious, they should not be taken lightly: given the stressful situation of transitioning to college and the differences in sociotemporal patterns between students and their parents, the convenience of communication technology is especially important to this particular population. Weighing Social Cues In choosing which tool to use to communicate with their parents, participants considered the depth of the conversation and the perceived richness of the tool. For in-depth discussions, students prefer phone and video calls that provide richer (audio and visual) social cues: [Phone calling is] more personal than texting or chatting online. You can hear voice, and hear actual emotions like laughing or if she s concerned, stuff like that. Mike Living away from home for the first time, students appreciated these informal, intimate conversations, particularly when they were feeling homesick or stressed. Furthermore, despite the barriers and inconveniences mentioned above, nine students reported talking with their parents over video, describing it as worth the extra effort: If I have the time and it s convenient then I'd rather do Skype. It s more personal and just kind of nicer. It s like a phone call with benefits, pretty much. Matt Students felt their parents were enthusiastic about video calls as well and appreciated the time commitment children made for them. The ability to convey emotions and intimacy and the need to bend one s schedule and to arrange the technical requirements for coordinating a conversation over richer, but more technically-intensive media, were perceived by participants as contributing to enhancing their relationships with their parents. At the same time, media richness was not always considered positive. Students felt a trade-off between feeling m
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