Media Literacy 101: A Study to Help Moms Tell If Their College Student Loves Them

Want insight into your relationship with your son or daughter at college?

Take a look at 24 Hours: Unplugged, a new study out today about how 18-22 year olds use media.

The research from the International Center for Media & the Public Agenda (ICMPA) concludes that most college students need their Droids, Dell laptops and iPods in order to literally function in their university worlds. It's true, students use media technologies to read their course texts online, consult with their professors via email and post their assignments on class websites.

But what the study also found is that digital media devices, platforms, applications and sites have changed how students relate to family and friends. Students' lives are now wired together so tightly by texting, IM-ing and Facebook that opting out of that communication pattern would be tantamount to renouncing a social life.

2010-04-21-wordle2for110k.jpg This is a Wordle data visualization of the over 100,000 words the students in the study wrote about their experiences of going 24 hours without media. This Wordle cloud makes larger those words that appeared most frequently in the students' comments.

The ICMPA study, which I (full disclosure) led, asked 200 students at the University of Maryland, College Park to give up all media for 24 hours. After their 24 hours of abstinence, the students were then asked to blog on their private class websites about their experiences: to report their successes and admit to any failures. The 200 students wrote over 110,000 words: in aggregate, about the same number of words as a 400-page novel.

What students spoke longest and loudest about, was how their lack of access to text messaging, phone calling, instant messaging, email and Facebook during their day-long hiatus meant that they couldn't connect with friends who lived close by, much less those far away. Going without media meant going without their friends and family.

Quite a few students spoke about why instant access, 24/7 on-demand technology is so appealing: "The convenience of these tools is incomparable," said one student. "I can make plans for Friday, Saturday, and Sunday within ten minutes worth of phone calls or texts. Without my phone, I'd have to be making plans months in advance through letters."

But one of the real surprises of the study came not with the dozens of students who spoke about being able to find their friends for lunch in a packed dining hall by giving them a quick call, but those who spoke about wanting to physically avoid their friends. They wanted to stay in close touch with their friends, but in virtual touch.

Connecting through technology can be a desired end in itself, students in the study matter-of-factly noted. "I got back from class around 5, frantically craving some technology," noted a student. "5 hours short of my deadline, I decided that I would seriously go mad if I couldn't ... communicate without being in person."

Technology is not just the expeditor for such decisions as which bar to meet at on Friday night, in other words, but is a way to feel connected, but not too close. It's the adult equivalent of having two toddlers in the same room, who never do more than parallel play. They can see each other, babble at each other, but not worry about having to accommodate the other's demands.

"Texting and IM-ing my friends gives me a constant feeling of comfort," wrote one student about her day away from all media. "When I did not have those two luxuries, I felt quite alone and secluded from my life. Although I go to a school with thousands of students, the fact that I was not able to communicate with anyone via technology was almost unbearable."

So how does ICMPA's study illuminate college students' relationships with their parents?

Well, there, actually, was some good news. About twenty 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 everyday, 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."

Why do students call home? Although a call is not a visit, it's usually a more sustained communication than a text message. And while it may be that college students call home because they know parents aren't as text-savvy as they are, from what we heard in the ICMPA study, students are calling home rather than texting because they simply want to hear mom's voice. If you are getting phone calls from your son or daughter at college, take that as a good sign. (Unless on every occasion you get asked for money.)

"I did break the rules by answering the phone when my mother called," one student in our study wrote. "I don't think it really means that I am attached to technology though; I think it just means that I like to keep in contact with my mother."