Does Virtual Communication with Parents Help Students Recover from Daily Stressors?: Daily and Experimental Tests with First Year College Students

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Emerging adulthood, specifically the transition to college, is often marked by changing social networks, increased responsibility, and separation from the parental home environment. Educators, researchers, and those dedicated to the healthy development of young people are invested in understating how and why social support is important for students’ adjustment, wellbeing, and their ability to cope with the daily stressors that accompany this notable transition. In particular, parents are believed to be a key source of both perceived (stable) and enacted (immediate) support. Strong parental relationships predict students’ overall achievement and adjustment in the first year of college. Less is known about how parental relationships may impact students’ daily wellbeing and whether parents can provide helpful enacted support through daily communication. With the rapid ubiquitous rise in mobile technologies, students and their parents are now communicating more frequently during this transition; however, very little is known about whether daily virtual parental communication can help students cope with daily stressors. This study contributes to the existing literature by 1) describing students’ daily in-person and virtual communication with parents during the beginning of college, 2) examining whether students' daily virtual parental communication is associated with their same-day wellbeing, 3) testing whether daily virtual communication (i.e., enacted support) buffers daily responses to stressors, 4) examining the specificity of parental support (versus other sources of support), and 5) exploring whether the strength of students’ parental relationships (i.e., perceived support) is associated with students’ ‘reactivity’ to daily stressors. This dissertation consists of three studies that used daily assessments (i.e., ecological momentary assessments: EMA) and experimental manipulation to understand the momentary interplay between exposure to stressors, parent-child virtual communication, and students’ wellbeing during the transition to college.

Study 1, a 7-day EMA study of 136 first and second year college students, found that texting with a parent moderated the same-day associations between daily stressors and affect. Although daily parental virtual communication was not directly associated with same-day affect, on days when students reported a stressor and texted with a parent, they had lower negative and higher positive affect compared to stressor days when they did not text with a parent. Extending research by Gross (2009), Study 2 used an experimental paradigm in which 101 first year college students completed a virtual social exclusion stressor task (i.e., Cyberball) and then were assigned to text a parent, text a stranger, or play a solitary computer game. Students who ‘reached out’ via text message to parents or strangers demonstrated faster recovery in self-esteem following the experimentally induced stressor compared to students assigned to the no contact control. Study 3 followed the same 101 first year students with a 10-day EMA study. On days when students reported a stressor and called/texted with their parents (versus days without virtual parental contact), they reported lower negative affect and slept longer that night, as monitored objectively with a wearable wristband. Analyses testing for specificity across the three studies found that only virtual communication with parents or romantic partners, but not other texting patterns (number of texts or contacts) or partners (texting with acquaintances, siblings, roommates, or friends), moderated the daily associations between stressors and wellbeing. In addition, students with higher reported maternal relationship quality were less ‘reactive’ to stressors, such that in both experimental and naturalistic settings students with lower (versus higher) maternal relationship quality had steeper increases in negative affect when they experienced a stressor. Overall, the three studies found converging evidence that daily virtual communications with parents may aid students in dealing with daily stressors, especially for reducing negative affect. Possible explanations, ideas for future research, and implications are discussed.





George, Madeleine Josephine (2017). Does Virtual Communication with Parents Help Students Recover from Daily Stressors?: Daily and Experimental Tests with First Year College Students. Dissertation, Duke University. Retrieved from


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