Jenny Tananbaum was at home in New Jersey one Saturday morning last September when she noticed a flurry of activity in the Facebook group she had joined for parents of students at American University in Washington, D.C., where her son was a freshman. Fire alarms were sounding in the dorms, according to posts from anxious parents.
Ms. Tananbaum messaged her son. “You okay?”
“I hope you’re outside,” she nudged.
More than 30 minutes ticked by before Ms. Tananbaum knew her son was fine; he just hadn’t been checking his phone. “When he wrote back, he said: ‘I’m on the quad where I’m supposed to be,’” she said. “He was like, ‘You can stop now.’”
The fire was real, but Ms. Tananbaum is skeptical about whether there was much point in getting sucked into the drama unfolding post by post, from the fire trucks’ arrival to the moment students were permitted back into the dorms.
“When I went to college, we had a lot of fire alarms in my dorm, and my parents didn’t know about them and I was fine and they were fine,” she said.
Ms. Tananbaum sees the Facebook group as a “curse and a blessing”: useful for advice for move-in day and for local recommendations, like when her son injured a finger and needed an orthopedist.
It’s also reassuring to read a range of emotions, she said, whether parents miss their children terribly or worry because they’re homesick. “It’s nice to know that whatever you or your kids are feeling, someone else is feeling the same way,” Ms. Tananbaum said.
Still it sometimes feels as if she’s getting too much information. “These groups make it very easy for parents to get involved,” she said. “I think, Do we really need to know any of this?”
Whether they are an inevitable sign of hyper-connected times or something closer to next-level helicopter parenting, Facebook groups for parents of college students are on the rise. So far in 2019, more than 200,000 people have joined university parent groups on Facebook in the United States, a 50 percent jump from this time last year, according to Leonard Lam, a company spokesman.
The groups, usually created by a parent and without university involvement, are a gathering spot for the parents or guardians of a particular school’s students. There are also groups arranged by class year, student major or other interests, like “Parents of College Athletes,” “Moms of an ‘Only Child’ Away at College” and “It’s All Greek to Me! Parents of College Greeks.”
Elin Hilderbrand, the novelist, joined the University of South Carolina’s parent Facebook group last year, after her son enrolled. “I had to Google ‘DS’ and ‘DD,’” Ms. Hilderbrand said. “I thought it was a Southern thing.” (For the uninitiated: DS is shorthand for darling son, DD is darling daughter.)
From her home in Nantucket, Mass. — also the setting for several of her beachy romance novels — Ms. Hilderbrand was transfixed by posts about the intense world of sorority rush at the university, where first-year female students arrive a week before the school year begins to advance through elimination rounds in hopes of a bid.
“I’m fascinated by sorority rush. It sounds brutal…. The girls seem to have it much harder?” Ms. Hilderbrand posted.
Responses poured in, and Ms. Hilderbrand couldn’t stop reading. “There were literally hundreds of stories about the way the girls have to get up at 6 in the morning and get their hose on,” she said. “There were mothers on there who were completely heartbroken — ‘My daughter was a legacy and she didn’t get in and her best friend and her roommate got in.’ Every comment was a novel, and it was breaking my heart.”
Parents also rely on college groups to ask about mattress toppers, frown on difficult professors (“My daughter is very good in math, but her professor isn’t teaching at all,” read a recent post in a Clemson mothers group), arrange “care-package parties” and set up parent “sip and sobs” near campus after drop-off.
Some look for help finding their children roommates; others complain about them. There are bucking Buckeyes. “I need a little advice!” read a recent post on the Ohio State University (OSU) Parents group. “My daughter called me at 5:30 a.m. saying she had been sitting in the common room since 3 a.m. because while she was asleep her roommate had came in and woke her up because she was having sex in the room!”
No question is too trivial. A parent in a University of New Hampshire group wondered: “What kind of shower caddy do boys use?”
In an era when some parents are spending thousands of dollars to turn their children’s dorm rooms into cushy retreats with upholstered headboards and giant flat-screen TVs, expectations are high.
“People get incensed, like ‘I pay x amount of dollars and I can’t believe the quality of the food or the dorms,’” said Samantha Moran, who is in parent groups for two universities, Tulane and Elon. “I don’t need my kids to have a climbing wall. There’s a part of me that’s secretly happy that they’re living in a cinder-block dorm and eating bad food. That’s part of college.”
For many parents, the groups are a source of support, community and identity. Dee Dee Becker is the administrator for Virginia Tech’s parents Facebook group, which has more than 16,000 members, making it one of the largest groups of its kind on the platform. Ms. Becker estimated that she devotes 40 hours a week overseeing the group.
She has helped direct freshman parents to answers of frequently asked questions, and has consulted with university officials when she doesn’t have an answer to a question, such as when a parent recently asked if dart boards are allowed in dorm rooms. (No.)
She also creates calendar events to build anticipation for football “watch parties,” where parents enthusiastically comment with their reactions. When Ms. Becker’s daughter came down with mono, a local mother in the group delivered ginger ale, crackers and an air mattress for Ms. Becker, while she made the drive from five hours away.
Although Ms. Becker and her husband’s daughter, their only child, graduated in May and moved out, Ms. Becker plans to continue as a Virginia Tech parent group administrator. “There’s no end in sight at the moment for me, though I think I’ll know it when it’s time,” she said.
Parent groups on Facebook are typically “closed,” which means that only members can see posts. Administrators can opt to approve posts before they appear.
Parents or family members who want to join usually answer a few screening questions to confirm that they have a student at the university. Administrators also try to keep out local solicitors like laundry-pickup services, alcohol-delivery businesses and “rush consultants,” who will help would-be sorority members select their outfits for recruitment week. Students are not allowed.
That didn’t stop Cassidy Payne, who, when she was a senior at Virginia Tech, slipped past gatekeepers with a fake Facebook profile and wrote a satirical piece about the university’s parent group for the site The Black Sheep Online.
“Little did we know that by the time we had settled into our dorm rooms and watched the family car roll away, our mothers and fathers had already become members of a secret society,” Ms. Payne wrote. The conclusion: “Our parents will always be our parents, no matter if you’re halfway across the globe or a two hour drive down 81. And they have no shame in asking for recommendations for the best cures of explosive diarrhea for their DS or DD.”
She may have a point. Parents do need to differentiate between enabling and empowering, said Julie Lythcott-Haims, a former dean of freshmen at Stanford University and the author of “How to Raise an Adult.” For example, there’s nothing wrong with parents having a shortlist of contacts near the school, made through a parent group, in case of emergencies, she said.
“Let’s just not classify everything as an emergency,” Ms. Lythcott-Haims said. A cold does not require parent intervention, she noted. “In that circumstance the dorm staff is the resource, and you can tell your kid, ‘Honey, have your R.A. help you out — that’s why they’re there.’”
Over the past decade, more colleges and universities have recognized that parents have unique needs, at a time when concerns about campus safety and mental health issues are high, and some institutions are taking an active role in Facebook parent groups. Two years ago, Maureen Hurley, the director of parent and family programs at Emerson College, created a Parents and Families of Newly Accepted Students group.
“It was an experiment to see if we were able to help families communicate with the school in an easier way than their picking up the phone or writing an email with basic questions like ‘What size bedsheets do we need?’” Ms. Hurley said.
She said that the group has been a success. In a poll of families about where they got most of their information, the Parent and Family Facebook group ranked highest, above the school website or families’ own students. Ms. Hurley has used features like Facebook Live to help answer parent questions, like when she gave a video tour of the student health center.
In September, Ms. Hurley asks parents of the previous class to migrate to “the big-kids table” — the larger school parent group. However, the first group had formed a tight bond and created its own group, unmoderated by Emerson, for their students’ class year.
“They didn’t want to leave,” Ms. Hurley said.