Between the Lines: January-February 2007

It's an inescapable sign of our age of instant communications: students walking to their next class or waiting for an East-West bus or checking out eating options and reaching—eagerly, reflexively—for their cell phones.

When those students aren't fixated on their phones, they're instant-messaging (less-than-instant messages representing a throwback to that quaint communication form called letter writing), or posting updates on sites like Facebook (those updates appearing on the online "wall" like so much graffiti—declaring "look at me" and not much else). But, as two of this issue's stories point out, constant interaction isn't always meaningful interaction.

One story was inspired by a Duke-based study on networks of confidants. Over two decades, the study found, the number of people saying there is no one with whom they discuss important matters nearly tripled. As social ties loosen, the most vulnerable among us slip through the safety net, and all forms of civic engagement diminish.

The Duke study suggests that social ties, such as they are, are more family based than they used to be. And everyone who deals with students knows that it's often a parent on the other end of the cell-phone call. More and more, parents are an ever-present force in the lives of their children on campus—the subject of the cover story.

Communication with home, when I was an undergraduate, meant the Sunday-night call on the dorm pay phone and the letter delivered by a postman. The challenges of college life—the tough-grading biology professor, the moody roommate—were addressed in due course, within the bounds of campus. Now, it's all about instant solace and instant solutions. In college, students are tested in areas far removed from the classroom. If they resort to their parents to confront every problem, to fix every mistake, to lift them up with every stumble, where will they find the resilience that life, in time, will demand of them?

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