In Defense of the Digital Umbilical Cord

I’m 26 and still on my parents’ cellphone plan. That’s a good thing.

Illustration by Mark Alan Stamaty

Illustration by Mark Alan Stamaty

I have an embarrassing secret. And if you’re a millennial, chances are you’ve got the same one. For a while, I wasn’t sure just how shameful it was, but then Glamour magazine confirmed my hunch: In a sidebar feature called, “HEY, IT’S OK …”, the magazine lists behaviors that everyone does so, like, you don’t need to feel guilty about doing them.

It’s OK, for example, to “pay double on airfare just because you need to see the sun. On a beach. Now,” and it’s also OK if “ ‘animals cuddling’ is the top-searched term in your browser history.”


Courtesy of Glamour magazine

But, it’s “UMM, NOT OK … if you’re 26 and your parents still pay your cell phone bill. Cut the cord on that family plan!” the writer scolds.

Apparently, staying on the family plan is holding us millennials back from true adulthood and independence. As a 26-year-old who not only is still on the family cellphone plan but also mooches off my parents’ HBO Go and Netflix accounts—I’m apparently doing this whole emerging adulthood thing wrong.

Or am I?

As it turns out, we digitally tethered millennials may not have much to feel ashamed of. In fact, we might even be better off in the long run than the cellphone (and cable TV) lone wolves out there. The problem isn’t us lazy, exploitative leeches or even our clingy parents, but rather an outdated social norm: In the United States, if you aren’t self-supporting at 18 (or thereabouts), you’ve failed to launch, and they’ve failed as parents.

It’s a new expectation—and a historical aberration—that you must somehow reach a point where you no longer need anybody in your family to contribute to you (and vice versa), said Jeffrey Arnett, a professor of psychology at Clark University and the author of Emerging Adulthood: The Winding Road From the Late Teens Through the Twenties

But is it necessarily a bad expectation? If you cut ties and shove kids out of the nest earlier, does that make for happier, more productive adults? Or put another way: Does continuing to support kids at various levels (from cellphone plans to rent payments) during emerging adulthood stunt their growth?

Though it’s hard for me to objectively assess whether my parents’ continued support has stunted my growth, I don’t think I fit the description of Mooching Millennial. That’s partly because I’m financially independent (aside from the cellphone plan and HBO Go and Netflix accounts), and I live in a city that’s far from home. I don’t talk to my parents everyday, and I only occasionally ask for their advice on professional and personal decisions. And oftentimes, the help I receive is reciprocated. When my dad launched a vintage watch business, for example, I helped him create a website, email newsletter, Twitter account, Instagram, Facebook, and Tumblr. In my case, the cellphone plan isn’t hurting my parents financially, according to them (more on that later). They also don’t seem to harbor any feelings of resentment and/or anger toward me. If I’m OK with it, and my parents are OK with it, then Glamour and other digital-umbilical-cord scolds should butt out.  

And recent emerging adulthood data indicates that my experience may not be an anomaly. Of course, this research comes with an important caveat: It’s impossible to generalize over such a large age range (emerging adults are, generally speaking, 18–30). Myriad factors can impact the dynamics between parent and emerging adult—like socioeconomic status, level of education, race, geography, and citizenship status. But to the extent that we can draw some conclusions from certain populations, Karen Fingerman’s recent study can help. Fingerman, a professor at the University of Texas who studies adult development, set out to prove with her research “that helicopter parenting was harmful.”

That didn’t happen, she told me. “We couldn’t find that there was such a thing as too much dependence. On the whole, when you look at how young adults are doing, those who are getting support from parents are doing better than young adults in similar circumstances without that support,” she said. The study didn’t specifically ask about cellphone plans or cable subscriptions, but it did mention general technological support—which could go both ways (a parent asking a child for computer help, for instance).

Phew. But even if this extra support isn’t necessarily bad for me, I wondered: What’s the real cost to my parents? And do companies like Netflix and HBO Go worry that mooching millennials will hurt their bottom line, especially given that, according to a recent survey, 46 percent of American adults with streaming accounts share their passwords with people who don’t live with them? I tackled the second question first.

Back in April 2013, Jenna Wortham wrote in the New York Times about the economics of sharing password information for streaming TV and movie services, and noted that companies like HBO seemed unconcerned about such behavior at the time. Last January, HBO’s CEO announced that he was pro–password sharing—especially between students and parents. He thinks of it as a marketing tool to lure the next generation of users. The HBO Go representative I spoke with wouldn’t tell me whether the new, unbundled service that is scheduled to launch in April would have different regulations around multiuser streaming.

Netflix seems similarly unconcerned. According to its representative, fewer than 10 percent of its users share password information (although he did emphasize that password-sharing is against Netflix terms and conditions).

At this point, I was feeling a little better about my leeching habits—at least when it comes to streaming services. But that was only one part of the full parasitic economic picture. On one stormy D.C. day, I traveled to the Verizon store to figure out how much exactly it was costing my parents to host me on the family plan, and how much I’d have pay to forge my own cellular path. (I had broached the cost question with my parents before but wanted to corroborate my father’s vague approximations).  

Turns out, I’m costing my parents quite a bit. They pay approximately $80 each month for my data and line. If I struck out on my own, I’d be looking at a price tag of $110 per month for the same amount of data, the Verizon representative told me.

“Do you pay your parents anything right now?” she asked me. I wasn’t sure how that was relevant.

“Um, no,” I stuttered. She gave me a look that could’ve had many meanings, but I interpreted it as, “you spoiled, millennial brat.”

Feeling ashamed and entitled, I thought back to a conversation I’d had with Varda Konstam, a professor emerita in the University of Massachusetts Boston’s Department of Counseling and School Psychology. She told me that while staying on the family plan isn’t necessarily a bad thing, it’s important to dig a little deeper and ask: “What is the parents’ agreement to pay the phone bill all about? Is it the last vestige for emerging adulthood? Or is it a vehicle for ensuring enmeshment between parent and emerging adult?”

I decided to pose this question to my parents. What is their agreement to pay my cellphone all about? I called them (with my iPhone).

“Some people might think it’s about control, that you have to call us because we’re paying your phone bill, but it’s an economic thing,” my dad began. He explained that I would, proportionally, end up spending more if I weren’t on our plan (that was true). He paused and added: “And I think it’s kind of a nice vestige of when we were living under the same roof. I kind of enjoy the fact that you use some of my other accounts. “

“It makes us feel connected to you!” my mom piped in.

“If we wanted to, we could probably break into your text messages, too,” my dad joked, as my mother chuckled. I didn’t laugh because this unearthed a painful memory: A few years ago, my then-boyfriend’s text messages began mysteriously appearing in my father’s phone because of some iCloud issue. The perils of interdependence.

“It’s not an umbilical cord, it’s more like a little connective wisp,” my mother continued. “It’s as much for us as it is for you.”

To me, becoming an adult is not about entering into some ironclad social contract that requires you to refuse all help from your parents. Rather, it’s about learning to differentiate between the support that could be hurting your relationship with your family—and the support that strengthens it.

This article is part of Future Tense, a collaboration among Arizona State University, New America, and Slate. Future Tense explores the ways emerging technologies affect society, policy, and culture. To read more, visit the Future Tense blog and the Future Tense home page. You can also follow us on Twitter.