Our students’ behavior demonstrates they have one primary lifeline, and it is not their parents. A longitudinal study of student use of mobile devices was initiated by researchers at Ball State University 14 years ago. Way back in 2010, they reported 99.8% of college students already owned cell phones—and the number was rising. According to the National Center for Educational Statistics, US college enrollment in fall of 2018 was 19.9 million students. That represents a staggering reliance on cell phones!

However, Michael Hanley of Ball State’s College of Communication and Media stated in 2013 that while multiple uses of mobile technologies continued to ramp up, calls made on cell phones had fallen by a remarkable one-third in the previous four years. Students making one or more calls each day dropped from 89 to 51%. Although calls home were on the decline, 68-70% of the phone bills were still being paid by parents.

I imagine whether you are footing the bill or not, you still hope to hear from your student. With cultural norms changing, should you be expecting a call? The Ball State study showed that 94% of students reported texting every single day. You would be right to imply today’s students prefer texting to calling. In many ways, that’s understandable. Texting has the advantage of being quick and practical. Students can text without interrupting class. Texting can even be thoughtful because it provides an opportunity to edit.

Texting also has its disadvantages. When I look at the last few texts from the young adults in my life, here’s what I found:

  • E’d you (translation: emailed you)
  • Will do (two words in reply to a full paragraph from me)
  • Please snag the key lime (from the one living under my roof who knew I was collecting leftover pie to bring home)
  • Home from travels. Very Tired. Chat tomorrow? (the one living away from home at least suggested a call!)

To me the messages feel truncated, are easily misinterpreted, and lack depth. I can only guess the tone of voice. Am I hearing annoyed, genuine, or condescending? I find myself wanting more—and for good reason. 

An old-fashioned phone call has important qualities that are missing in texts. As parents, we can extend an invitation to our students for a regular phone conversation with these extra benefits in mind:

  • Nothing replaces hearing a familiar voice from home. The 1982 classic E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial, used the alien’s limited words “E.T. phone home,” to convey contact with the home front provides an essential lifeline.
  • Warmth is difficult to convey in a text message. I’m big on encouraging words. To be able to deliver them on the other end of the phone is far superior!
  • Reporting information can happen in a short text but reaching understanding happens more readily when you can exchange thoughts, ask questions in the moment, and reflect on each other’s comments.
  • Difficult topics require navigation that is next to impossible by email, let alone text. Circumventing assumptions and avoiding overreaction is much easier in person.
  • “Adulting” requires developing communication skills for relationships in and out of the workplace. We don’t sit in the cube next to a colleague and text instead of talk. We invite deep conversation with our significant other over dinner, not over a text message. Our students learn how to deal with disappointment, speak up about their needs, and cope with challenging emotions through conversations.

In the long run, it is actually easier to have a CONVERSATION voice to voice. Even if you and your student keep track of each other via texting, email, Facebook messenger, or some other electronic tool, phone conversations provide a rich context for you to stay in touch with what’s happening in their lives and for them to understand that home life continues to evolve even when they are not there.

Vicki Nelson, of College Parent Central, provides advice for making the most of your phone calls with your young adult children. She has several tips for us, such as:

  • Make it routine. It’s okay to ask for a weekly call because you need to hear their voice. If you let your student choose the time, you’ll avoid disrupting something important to them.
  • Do your part to keep things going smoothly. Discern your job. Listener? Sounding board? Coach? Be ready to celebrate their victories. “Tell me more about that,” extends the conversation.
  • Be informed. Check the university calendar to know what is going on so you are ready to ask about major events, when it is time to select courses again, or to discuss an interesting chapel speaker.
  • Don’t stand in your own way. There’s a fine line between listening and advice giving. Your student may want to be listened to but isn’t necessarily inviting your opinion. What you intend as interest may feel like interrogation to your student. Avoid discounting your student’s experience or dismissing their feelings by saying, “It can’t be that bad.” Talking tools for parents can include biting our tongues (aka listening) and simple reassurance—“I’m sorry it’s rough. I’ll be here to support you.”   

Whether your student is the master of the two-minute talk or a natural storyteller, cherish the insights you gain from your conversations. If you get the, “Gotta go. I’m meeting friends,” count your short chat a blessing. Chances are that your student is busy making Northwestern feel like home. There will be another opportunity to listen again soon. Set a routine and expect a call. If you need to nudge your student, try sending a text that says, “Phone Home :).”

Portrait of Sarah Butler

Sarah Arthur Butler

Assistant Dean, College of Graduate, Online & Adult Learning

Supporting non-tradional learners is my primary role at UNW. I consider it a privilege to encourage and equip staff and students in the Dual Enrollment (PSEO...

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