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Vol. LXV, No. 16
August 2, 2013

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Parental Messages Take Hold on College Campuses, Research Indicates

College students—enjoy your summer break. You’ve earned it. But when you get back on campus, be sure to keep in touch with your folks. It’s good for your health, according to an NIH-funded study.

Despite the independence many college freshmen yearn for, data indicate that most first-year students expect their parents to provide counsel and assistance during and shortly after the transitional years. How much influence parents have over their children’s activities during the first year of advanced learning remains ripe for investigation, as such a cause-and-effect link may predict future adult behaviors, experts suspect.

Dr. Meg Small

Dr. Meg Small

Dr. Meg Small, assistant director of the Prevention Research Center at Pennsylvania State University, and her associates investigated the protective effect of parent-student communication as it pertained to collegians’ eating and physical activity patterns. A total of 746 first-year college students participating in the long-running University Life Study filled out baseline surveys followed by 14 consecutive daily surveys during both semesters of their freshman year. Via the questionnaires, researchers monitored many of the students’ daily activities, with a focus on nutritional and exercise behaviors on days they communicated with their folks, as measured against days when there were no interactions.

“What we learned was that on days that the students communicated more with their parents (either by phone, text or email), they were significantly more likely to eat fruits and vegetables and spend more time exercising,” said Small, who acknowledged she was not sure there were direct messages or indirect ones coming from parents. In addition, although researchers did not look at what was discussed between parent and student, the amount of time each interaction took or how close a relation the parties had with each other (e.g, the “parental warmth” factor), the evidence revealed “a protective effect” from parents. It also mimicked earlier investigations by Small involving alcohol consumption and parent-student communication. These findings showed that on days that freshman collegians communicated with their folks, they consumed fewer drinks, had a lower blood alcohol content and were less likely to binge, she explained.

The findings are noteworthy for both generations. “One of the real take-home messages and what stands out,” says Small, “is that parents still count. They really do. Based on our most recent findings, we see that they continue to have a significant influence on college behaviors at least in the first year of advanced schooling. And these behaviors could have an impact in later life.”

Meanwhile, other studies have shown that healthy behaviors such as proper nutrition and regular exercise typically decline in post-freshman years. Upcoming investigations by Small and her team will delve into whether there are sub-groups in which declines in nutrition and exercise do not occur in college years 2-4 and what influence continued, regular communication between parent and child would have on those lifestyle factors.

Results of this study appeared in a recent issue of the Journal of Adolescent Health and were supported by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism.

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