This is a guest post from my wife, Susan Matt, whose book, Homesickness: An American History, comes out in September from Oxford University Press. The last chapter, titled "Of Helicopter Parents, Facebook, and Walmart: Homesickness in Contemporary America," deals with college students and mobility among other things.
Mobile devices have profoundly transformed campus life. One of their significant effects has been a change in the way that students relate to those off campus. A recent study of University of Michigan and Middlebury students found they were in touch with their parents by phone, email, and text message an average of 13 times each week. Add to that Facebook and other social media sites, and students today can be sitting in their college dorms rooms, and still chatting online with their high school classmates, parents, and siblings, no matter how far apart they are scattered. The idea of going away to college is not quite what it was. As a New York Times columnist reported, with “unlimited cell phone minutes, e-mail, text messages and Blackberries,” college life today is far different from “the days of calling home once a week—collect—from the pay phone in the dormitory hallway.”
What does this unprecedented level of contact with home actually mean? Some suggest that it is the perfect antidote to homesickness, the old bugbear of freshman year. Now, rather than pining for mom, dad, and old friends, students can point a mouse and be in touch.
Others, however, worry that the endless text messaging, the Facebook, the tweeting, and cell phone conversations, are inhibiting the emotional development of students. According to this view, college used to be a developmental stage on the path to independence, a point when young people learned to separate themselves from home, and overcame homesickness. Psychologist Peter Crabb, for instance, suggests that the spread of cell phones and other communications technology among college populations ultimately “promotes immaturity and dependence.” He argues that the rising generation is not learning proper lessons of emotional control, observing that students call home for comfort. “The call makes them feel better. But they are not learning to control their emotional states, which is part of becoming an adult.”
Is too much communication a bad thing? Should we worry? Will we end up with a cohort of immature adults who are unable to be independent?
It seems to me that we only need worry if we hold sacred the idea of the rugged and isolated individual. Modern psychology suggests that the footloose person, who can be mobile, who can cut ties and not look back, is the norm of human behavior, but this is only true in the contemporary United States. Our ideas about how connected young people should be to their parents—emotionally or technologically—are historically contingent. In more communitarian societies, the ceaseless emphasis on individualism is largely absent, the lessons about breaking home ties less visible. If students and their parents want to stay in touch, and indeed, if students want to stay in touch with their classmates, their past, their homes, why should we complain? Aren’t such efforts a reflection of their commitments to other value systems besides lonely individualism? We celebrate mobility and moving on as distinctly American traits; yet we shouldn’t overlook or discount Americans’ ongoing efforts to sustain connections and community across great distances.