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Connecting to Kids in the Digital Age

With instant communication, parents need to be mindful of getting a little too close

En español | When a lot of us were in college, keeping in touch with mom and dad usually meant a dutiful Sunday phone call home every week or two. Our parents remained mostly out of the loop as we found our way in the world, sometimes falling flat and getting up, staking out our own lives, declaring our independence.

See also: 11 tips for social networking safety.

Even as recently as 15 years ago, when email was just starting to revolutionize global communication, a friend remarked that she wouldn't use it to keep in touch with her college son. She didn't think it was fair to be a constant, lurking presence in his dorm room. "He needs some space and some privacy to find himself," she explained.

Senior couple communicates through social media on the computer

Blue Jean Images/Getty Images

Parents should set some boundaries when using social media.

How quaint that seems now when parents and kids are connected by an electronic lifeline that never ends. Technological innovations have joined forces with social changes to create a communication explosion between parents and emerging adults in this new century.

Parents can lob email messages back and forth all day with their college students or recent grads. They can Skype to see a dorm room or a first apartment, meet new roommates, or vote on the choice of outfit for a first job interview. They can check in by mobile phone while kids are crossing campus between classes or exchange texts when kids are bored in a lecture or losing focus at a desk job. They can track their grown children on Facebook — if permitted, that is, "friended" — or follow their kids' blogs from across the globe. Surely all this communication is a boon to keeping the generations close.

But there are pitfalls, too. The digital tools that connect us can also constrict us. Parents' good-advice emails allow them to be in their grown children's faces nonstop. Children's texted requests may mean they don't figure things out for themselves. Lurking on Facebook may give parents more information than they need to have (photos of that raucous Saturday night party a young reveler would sooner forget by Monday). A grown child's blog post written in haste or to amuse friends can cause undue parental worry.

A blessing, a curse or a combination of both? Our guidelines can help parents make the best use of digital contact with emerging adults and sidestep the potholes:

1. Take cues from your grown child's development. Where young people are located along the road to independence affects their need to reach out. In the launching years, college-age children often still rely on parents' guidance in making decisions — what classes to take, how to open a bank account or resolve roommate troubles. The phone tends to ring more after a disappointment or during a crisis and decreases as grown children build their problem-solving skills or consult with their romantic partner or a newly formed network of friends. As young people progress through their twenties, becoming more settled, secure and self-reliant, communication may once again increase, comfortably initiated by either side.

2. Follow your child's lead. When your grown kids are first starting to set up their lives, it's usually best to let them set the pattern and pace of contact. Gradually, most parents develop a second sense about when their sons or daughters need a check-in or a thumbs-up and when they want to be left alone to puzzle things out on their own. Unmade or unanswered calls may just mean a child's life is happily full and attention is elsewhere, but they can also be a sign of trouble brewing or a crisis that has deepened into despair. Parents have to make a sensible judgment about each child and each situation. If a longer than usual silence suggests that a child is having a hard time, or if a recent call home has been particularly emotional, it might be time to followup with an email or text — "Just wanted to make sure you're OK" — or arrange a future call.

3. Get your own e-life. If you're the sort of parent who's tempted by a child's unlocked diary, then beware: the Internet is like one big, unlocked diary and needs to be treated with the same respect and caution. Sure, you can go on your student's college website and get all worked up about the blogs posted there. And if they'll have you, you can become "friends" with your grown kids (and their friends) on Facebook and follow every drama in their personal lives.

But even the friendliest snooping can become intrusion and threaten the all-important boundaries between you and your emerging adults. So it's better to focus on your own life, follow your own favorite blogs and use Facebook to reconnect with long-lost friends from your own colorful past.

However high-tech, digital communication with emerging adults remains a delicate dance between staying connected and letting go. Finding the right balance is a personal decision for every family and an important part of parenting 20-somethings. 

Jeffrey Jensen Arnett is a research professor of psychology at Clark University and author of Emerging Adulthood: The Winding Road from the Late Teens Through the Twenties.Elizabeth Fishel is a widely published writer on family issues and the author of four nonfiction books, including Sisters and Reunion. They are working on a parents' guide to emerging adulthood to be published by Workman in 2012.

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