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Survey: Cell phones connect, disrupt students’ relationships to parents

image of Aimee Miller-Ott

Aimee Miller-Ott

A new study co-authored by Illinois State University’s Aimee Miller-Ott contains good news and bad news for helicopter parents of college students when it comes to cell phone use.

The bad news? Students report more conflict over cell phone use with parents who do a lot of helicopter parenting. The good news? Students who have fathers who helicopter a lot tend to say they feel closer to them. (Don’t worry helicopter moms, students feel the same closeness whether you are a high or low helicopter parent.)

Miller-Ott, an assistant professor of communication at Illinois State, is part of a team developing several ongoing studies on cell phones and interpersonal communication. “We examine whether or not young people follow ‘cellphone rules’ or etiquette with parents and friends, and how that relates to closeness and conflicts in relationships,” she said.

For the recent study, Miller-Ott surveyed more than 500 Illinois State students to discover how often they have contact with parents via cell phone (either calling or texting), and how that impacts their relationships.

Soon to be published in the Southern Communication Journal, the study revealed that in a typical 7-day week, those who had contact with their parents tended to speak with them more than once. Miller-Ott and her colleagues connected high-frequency contact to “helicopter” parenting—or having parents who tend to have too much control over decision-making in their children’s lives. “Parents not only have access to more information than ever before, but children can easily reach parents to vent their frustrations to them,” said Miller-Ott.

The team found that parents who frequently contacted their children through cell phones also exhibited higher degrees of helicopter parenting, with helicopter moms calling their children 4 to 6 times a week. “For mothers, moderate and high helicopter moms are similar to one another when compared to low helicopter moms,” said Miller-Ott who noted low-helicopter dads average around two contacts per week, while high-helicopter fathers can have more than five contacts per week.

For those who reported high frequency contact, Miller-Ott explained the students tended to see parents as knowledgeable and rely on them for help. They also, however, risked more arguments based on the need to be available to answer calls or texts. “In response, some students set up rules. ‘Don’t call me at these times,’ or ‘Don’t text me about that,’” said Miller-Ott, who noted the contradictory nature of the rules established with high helicopter parents can mean children want contact with parents, but also desire a sense of control over that contact.

What surprised Miller-Ott in the study was discovering that students who had a high helicopter relationship with their fathers also reported feeling closer to them than students with lower helicopter ratings. “The students who reported higher helicopter dads reported they were more relationally satisfied,” said Miller-Ott. “But somehow I feel bad saying, ‘If you want to feel close to your child and you’re a dad, helicopter!’”

Miller-Ott said she and her colleagues will continue to explore cell phone use and relationships. “There is a weird tension people have with their cell phones that is fascinating. We’ve come to expect cell phone use as a part of everyday life, but we still tend to hate it at the same time.” How people balance life and the cell phone use will always interest Miller-Ott. “We have a competing need culturally and relationally to be available to everyone. But can we ever commit 100 percent to any interaction when other interactions are only a click away?”

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