What Can't College Students Live Without? Calling Mom, According to New Study

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News flash: College students like being in touch with their parents when they are away at school. Yes, it's true. It's not only true, it appears to be normative to get on your computer or cell to Skype, text or phone home weekly if not daily, according to 24 Hours: Unplugged, a new study released by the University Of Maryland.

I was a bit skeptical of the study's finding, since my own generation's accepted practice was to not call home for days. My memories of the periodic phone call home from college were of persuading my parents they really wanted to send me more coin. Or arriving back late at night to a note stuffed in my key box reading, "Call your mom, she's worried." (Naturally, I would wait a day or two and THEN I would call her.) It seemed that most of us away at school perceived a call from our parents as intrusive -- the 'rents were calling to check up on us -- and a daily phone call home was viewed as one step away from packing up your room and moving home.

Well, that was then, this is now, and the times, they are a-changin'.

When I read the Huffington Post headline, "Study: Students ADDICTED to social media," my eyes rolled ever so slightly upward, as I recognized right away that the negative spin was meant to capture attention. But the clinician in me was curious if the study had actually been designed to focus on addiction and dependency among college students as it relates to social media use or abuse, or if there was another purpose.

To answer that question, I went right to the source. I emailed the professor who led the study, Susan Moeller Ph.D and she graciously agreed to speak with me via telephone. Who better to discuss the study than the person who created it?

Dr. Moeller is the director of the International Center for Media and the Public Agenda (ICMPA) and a professor in the schools of Journalism and Public Policy at the University of Maryland, College Park. The study participants were 200 of her students, predominantly freshman and sophomores, with a sprinkling of juniors and seniors. Moeller told me the demographics of her sample "reflected that of the national census," making it fairly representative of college students nationally.

So: Was the study designed measure and then point out college students are addicted to social media? Not according to Moeller. The purpose of the study was to "push the students to be more introspective."

Moeller said today's college students may not actually be all that aware of how many hours they actually spent involved with social media, nor are they conciously considering the manner in which they utilize social media. I asked her if it compared it to the self-hypnotic state we find ourselves in when we drive to the store and can't remember how we got there. "Yes, it's similar."

Study participants were required to give up all forms of social media, including computers, iPods and cell phones, for a period of 24 hours. Students were also required to blog about their experience, but, Moeller notes, "They weren't allowed to blog until after the 24 hours were up." That's right, they had to -- gasp!-- take notes by hand. The horror!

Moeller found that the most surprising admission from participants is quite a few of the students had "failed" the challenge because they called their moms. Some called their fathers, but most indicated they either answered the phone out of habit when mom called, or made a quick call on auto-pilot to let mom know they were safe and sound. According to Moeller's own article on Huffington Post in which she reports on the study's findings about staying in touch with family:

Well, there, actually, was some good news. About 20 percent of the students in the study mentioned their moms (only about five percent mentioned their dads)-- almost always to say how much they valued their communications with her: "The person I felt most disconnected from was my mom," wrote one student about the day off from media. "I talk to my mom on the phone every day, usually multiple times." Said another, "I usually talk to my mom every morning, so it felt as if I was going through withdrawal. I live about three hours away from Maryland, making me very used to talking to my parents several times a day." "I hated that I couldn't wake up and call my mom as I usually do," wrote a third.

As these three students suggest, the ICMPA study found that college students tend to phone home rather than text their parents -- a finding similar to that of a Pew Research Center study out yesterday that noted that "voice calling is still the preferred mode for reaching parents for most teens."

What Moeller set out to do was provide her students an opportunity to reflect on how the absence of social media can actually serve to raise consciousness about how individuals, and society, consume and utilize social media. And while the study did find that students self-identified being "Addicted to media. Really. Addicted," it also served to engage them to examine, with a more critical eye, their own use of social media -- including where they get their news (from all sorts of sites, it turns out; students didn't indicate allegiance to a particular source) and information (Twitter, Facebook), and who they are calling and texting (family and friends).

The easiest thing for students to give up, according to the study? Television. "Mainly because the students are watching Hulu on their computers," explains Moeller. Let's face it: No one's going to watch the boob tube when you've got YouTube.

Try to avoid getting too wrapped up worrying about "addiction" to social media. Cell phones, email and social networks make staying in touch with friends and family easier and way less expensive then ever before. It really does sound like the kids are all right. They just want to regularly phone home and catch up with mom and dad.

And isn't it damned comforting to know when students are away at college, they actually might be addicted to love?

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