First semester college students’ email to parents: I. frequency and content related to parenting style

First semester college students’ email to parents: I. frequency and content related to parenting style

Ashton D. Trice

In a study of 48 college freshmen with email capability to parents, it was found that students made an average of 6.03 email contacts weekly with parents. Email increased during stressful periods, and women were somewhat more likely to use email than men. Students from close families which had stressed independence authoritative made more contacts but sought less specific academic and social advice from parents than other students. Students from authoritarian families made most requests for advice. Students from permissive families made fewest contacts and sought little social or academic advice. All groups sought financial assistance at about the same rate.


A number of studies conducted a decade ago examined the extent to which first semester students remain in touch with their families (Kenny & Donaldson, 1991; Lapsley, Rice, & FitzGerald, 1990). Students who reported that they had close emotional bonds with their parents had more frequent contact with their parents by phone, letter, and visits than those who reported less closeness. These studies were conceived of as extensions of attachment theory (Bowlby, 1969) which hypothesizes that children who have close emotional bonds with parents will use contact with parents as a secure base from which they will explore new social and physical environments. Contacts increase during times of stress, although in studies of college students, those who were close to parents did not report that the purpose of those contacts was necessarily to seek advice.

All of these studies were conducted prior to the wide availability of electronic mail (email). Email allows for very frequent communication in short one-way bouts, quite different from arranging telephone contact or home visits, and much less time consuming than writing letters. The present study attempts to understanding how this new technology affects communication with parents.

Of interest in this study is identifying how often beginning students who have access to their parents through email use this means of communication. Also, Sprague (1999) found that women undergraduates reported a higher likelihood of seeking parental advice on what were termed “low intimacy” topics, which included issues such as dropping a class, cutting classes for legitimate reasons, and financial concerns. There were no differences between male and female students for “high intimacy” topics, such as birth control and romantic relationships. While Sprague’s study would lead one to suspect there would be more communication via email among women, it is not clear whether email might be perceived of as a “male” or “female” form of communication.

Attachment research indicates that students who were close to parents make more contact with parents than students who were not close, but in times of stress these differences increased, with close children making many more contacts. Determining closeness to parents among first semester freshmen is a more difficult task than it might first appear. Straightforward measures of closeness are suspect during the early college adjustment period, as they may reflect other issues such as homesickness. While a number of other measures useful in attachment research with college students are available (e.g., Bartholemew & Horowitz, 1991), none specifically addresses attachment to parents; rather, they conceive of attachment as a personality trait which may have been developed by relationships with any number of individuals. The problem with this approach would be seen in a student who had developed a secure attachment to a faculty mentor (Soucy & Larose, 2000). That student would likely seek contact with that individual rather than a parent.

Alternatively, we can reliably measure students’ perceptions of parental behaviors which are related to developing secure attachment through measures of parenting style (Strage & Brandt, 1999). Developmental psychologists have identified three types of parenting styles which are related to emotional adjustment. (Baumrind, 1973). The first of these styles is Authoritative. Authoritative parents teach their children general principles of conducts; have high intimacy with their children; and foster gradual independence. The authoritative parenting style is the most likely to result in secure, close attachment with the parent. The second parenting style is Authoritarian. Authoritarian parents tend to have specific rules which are enforced by strict discipline; are often removed from children because of their use of punishment; and tend to keep their children dependent of them for guidance. The authoritarian parenting style creates children who are not securely attached to parents, characterized by children who either remain dependent on parents for advice or alternatively completely reject parental standards once outside of parental control. The third parenting style is Permissive. Permissive parents have few rules; are often emotional distant from their children; and give premature independence. Adolescent and young adult children of permissive parents often respond by being indifferent to their parents.

Attachment theory suggest that simple contact to make students feel more secure about their own independent decisions rather than advice seeking would be the purpose of most communication among students with close relationships with their parents. We would expect more contacts between students from authoritative families than from those from permissive homes. Authoritarian parents may, however, require frequent contact as a means of keeping their children dependent on them. Permissive parents will have not created a routine in their children for advice seeking.



Forty-eight first year students enrolled in 100-level psychology courses at a state university participated in this study for course credit. There were 24 men and 24 women in the sample. Students were selected at random from a larger pool of potential participants who met the following criteria: they were first semester freshmen; lived more than two hours from the campus; were 18 or 19 years old; were living away from home for the first time; and their parents had email. The two courses from which these students were drawn were part of the university’s general education curriculum and are taken by 93% of students at the university.


Because the participant pool requirement at the university requires three activities, each participant attended an orientation session in which the procedures were explained and during which they completed the Buri (1991) Parental Authority Questionnaire. Thereafter each student was asked to make copies of all emails they sent during a Monday through Friday period on two occasions. Each subject kept emails during one high stress week (midterm examinations [week eight] or freshmen course registration [week eleven]) and one week considered to be low stress (the fifth or twelfth week of the semester). Six men and six women completed each of the possible combinations of weeks (5-8, 5-11, 8-12, and 11-12). Students were cued to keep their email through an email message the Thursday before recording was to occur.

Participants were asked to edit their emails in the following ways: 1) to code their email with a participant identification number rather than their names; 2) to capture their email messages so that no names or email addresses of the recipients were present; 3) to remove specific names of individuals discussed in the text; and 4) to edit any other content they felt was private. Participants were also asked not to include any emails directed to romantic partners. The present study analyzed only emails to parents.

On the Monday following a recording week, students were asked to indicate whether they had phoned, visited, or written a letter to their parents, siblings, or friends from high school during the week and asked to complete two short stress measures. The first consisted of a global rating of weekly stress on a 10-point scale, with 1 being “no stress” and 10 being “extreme stress”. In addition students were asked to indicate the number of stressors they had experienced during the previous week from a list of ten stressful events, including tests, papers, class presentation, heavy assignments, conflicts with roommate, conflicts with boyfriend/girlfriend, conflicts with professor college official, conflicts with family member or friend, financial problems, or illness.


During the orientation session, students completed Buri’s (1991) Parental Authority Questionnaire (PAQ). The PAQ consists of 60 questions, 10 parallel items for each of the three parenting styles for each parent. For each parent, the highest score can be used to determine the dominant parenting style. Each of the scales has test-retest reliability and internal consistency scores between .71 and .82.


Email messages home were coded for six content areas: 1) statement of an academic problem; 2) statement of a social problem; 3) statement of a financial problem; 4) requests for academic advice; 5) requests for social advice; 6) requests for financial advice or assistance. Each message was coded for as many of these areas as it had. An example of a statement of an academic problem might be “I had another hard calculus exam, and I’m not sure how I did on it.” A request for academic advice might be “Do you think I should drop calculus?” The six categories were selected to address three frequently studied content areas in adaptation to college studies (academics, social issues, and finances). We categorized statements of problems and requests for advice or assistance separately in order to determine whether students were sharing concerns home and whether they were asking for parental help. Each message was coded by two raters. Of the 579 messages, exact agreement was achieved in 569 messages. The 10 disagreements were resolved by conference. In all 10 cases the problem was an “indirect request for help,” such as “I’m wondering what to do about calculus,” which one rater scored as a statement about academic concerns and the other scored as a request for help. In each of these cases we have scored the statement as a request for help.


The first research question asked how often do students use email to communicate with parents. Table 1 reports the means and ranges of the number of emails to parents by week and sex of students. Overall, these students averaged more than one email to parents per day during the study period (M = 6.03 per five day week). The ranges indicates that there are substantial differences among students, with as many as 22 emails and as few as none.

We also wanted to determine whether there were gender differences in the rates of email and whether there would be more communication during stressful periods. A2 (Gender) x 2 (Stressful weeks vs Non-Stressful week) analysis of variance found a main effect for Stress, F(1,92) – 7.55, p = .007, with no interaction, F(1, 92) = .20, p = .66. The difference in Sex was below the traditional level of significance, F(1, 92) = 3.02, p = .09. Overall, men made somewhat fewer email contacts with parents (M = 5.4, SID = 2.88) than women 6.7, SID = 4.27) and students made more contacts during weeks thought to be stressful (M = 7.1, SID = 3.20) than during weeks regarded as less stressful (M= 5.0, SID = 3.82).

We determined whether the weeks thought to be stressful and less stressful were actually perceived by students those ways. In fact, the two weeks identified as less stressful (weeks five and twelve) were rated as significantly less stressful on both the 10-point global rating (5.6 and 6.3) and the 10 stressors (4.3 and 4.0) than the weeks identified as stressful (weeks eight and eleven) on the 10-point global ratings (7.3 and 7.1) and stressors (6.7 and 5.6). Overall, there was high agreement on the two stress indices. For men, the correlation between the 10-point scale and the specific stressor scale was r = .78, and for women it was r = .72. Because there were individual variations in weekly stress, we also correlated the relation between the combined stress indices and number of emails home. For men the correlation between stress during the week and emails home was r = .42 and for women it was r = .54.

We also determined whether there were many requests for assistance from parents in students’ email contacts. Of the 578 emails examined, 42 (7%) contained a statement of an academic problem; 31 (5%) contained a statement of a social problem; 24 (4%) contained a statement of a financial problem; 22 (4%) contained a request for academic advice; 23 (4%) contained a request for social advice; and 47 (8%) contained a request for financial advice or assistance. As many emails contained more than one of these categories, it is of note that 78% of the email messages to parents contained none of these statements or requests. Students were not primarily contacting their parents either to state problems or to gain assistance in these areas.

We also asked whether students from homes where the parenting style was Authoritative made more contacts than those from homes where parenting style was Authoritarian or Permissive. Using scores from Bud’s (1991) Parental Authority Questionnaire, we found that 24 students came from homes where both parents were described as Authoritative; seven came from homes where both parents were described as Authoritarian; and six came from homes where both were described as Permissive. Six students had single parents, three Authoritative, one Authoritarian, and two Permissive. Of the remaining five students, two were raised in families where one parent was described as Authoritative and one Authoritarian and three in families where one parent was described as Authoritarian and one as Permissive. In the latter case, a home where one parent is Authoritarian and the other Permissive, it is highly likely that the home is dominated by the Authoritarian parents, and so these students were classified as coming from an Authoritarian home. The former situation is more problematic. We believed that the Authoritative parent may have created a secure attachment, and it was decided to classify these students as having come from an Authoritative home. Thus, we have 29 students from Authoritative families, 11 students from Authoritarian families, and eight from Permissive families (Note 1). As sex of student was distributed almost equally among these options, we compared the three types of parenting for frequency of contacts.

There was an average of 4.0 (SD = 2.39) contacts per week among the students from Permissive families; 5.4 (SD = 1.10) contacts per week among the students from the Authoritarian families; and 6.8 (SD = 1.69) contacts per week among the Authoritative families, F(2,93) = 10.15, p = .001. A post-hoc analysis by Sheffe’s test indicated that Authoritative families were significantly different from both Authoritarian and Permissive families, with the Authoritarian family contacts not significantly different from Permissive families.

The final research question asked whether students from Authoritarian home would seek more advice than those from either Authoritative or Permissive homes. While the small number of requests among the eight Permissive families precludes statistical comparisons, Table 2 suggests two distinct patterns. For academic and social topics, students from Authoritative families were about twice as likely to express problems than either students from Authoritarian or Permissive families, while students from Authoritarian families were nearly five times as likely to ask for specific advice as those from either Authoritative or Permissive families. For financial topics, there were observed differences in the rates of either statements of financial issues or of requests for advice or assistance.


In general our hypotheses were confirmed. While there were no differences in contacts home by student sex, students did contact home more often during periods of stress. Students from Authoritative families made more frequent email contact home than other students from Authoritarian and Permissive families and were more likely to share problems with their families, while students from Authoritarian families were more likely to ask for specific advice about social and academic issues.

It is worth commenting that the development of email has increased communication between students and parents enormously. In the previous studies prior to email, the median number of contacts per week between college freshmen and their parents was two. In this study the median number of contacts was six times in five days over the single medium of electronic mail. The follow-up surveys indicated that students also called parents on average twice a week and visited home one in five weekends and even occasionally wrote letters. If one of the goals of the university is to foster independence, this finding may be a cause for concern.

Attachment theory, however, does not suggest that such high rates of contact are detrimental. Among the students from families described as Authoritative, contacts were the most frequent, but advice-seeking was low, suggesting that students are making decisions independently. Among these students, a typical communication was: “Another high carb dinner almost put me to sleep while study for my chem test. Bio was tedious but we had a fun lit class today, Faulkner. Looking forward to seeing everyone in next week. Pet Marco for me.”

As this is a very new are of study, much further research is possible. Replications at different universities with larger samples would be useful. An interesting issue would be to examine parental responses. Parenting research would suggest very different kinds of responses from parents with different parenting styles.

Email is a very attractive form of communication to study, because it can be so easily captured in its actual form and saved for researchers, but privacy issues are of concern in using this kind of data. While students were specifically instructed to edit their communications, a handful of the emails in this study raised issues of ethical concern, the most common of which was underage drinking. Particularly, several emails from students from Permissive families indicated this kind of law breaking.

Table 1. Mean Frequency (and Range) of Email Communication with Parents

Men Women

Week 5 (Low Stress) 4.9(1-12) 6.9 (0-22)

Week 8 (Mid-term) 6.4(2-14) 7.3 (1-17)

Week 11 (Registration) 6.8(1-11) 7.7 (1-13)

Week 12 (Low Stress) 3.5(0-9) 4.7 (1-10)

Table 2. Number of Problem Statement and Requests for Advice

(and Rate of Requests)

Type of

Academic Advice Social Financial

Home Type N

Authoritative 29

Statement 31 (1.07) 25 (0.86) 14 (0.48)

Request for Advice 7 (0.24) 7 (0.24) 31 (1.07)

Authoritarian 11

Statement 7 (0.63) 4 (0.36) 5 (0.45)

Request for Advice 13 (1.18) 14 (1.27) 8 (0.73)

Permissive 8

Statement 4 (0.50) 2 (0.25) 6 (0.75)

Request for Advice 1 (0.13) 2 (0.25) 8 (1.00)

Note 1

Reanalyses assigning these families where the parents fell into

different parenting styles into other categories and omitting

these families found strikingly similar findings.


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