Parents use 'digital' grounding as a 21st century disciplinary tool

By Donna St. George
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, September 5, 2010; 10:23 PM

Not so long ago, teenagers in trouble got grounded. They lost their evenings out, maybe the keys to the family car. But lately the art of family discipline has begun to reflect our digital age.

Now parents seize cellphones, shut down Facebook pages, pull the plug on PlayStation.

That's how it went in Silver Spring last school year, when Iantha Carley's high-schooler got a midterm grade report that contained letters of the alphabet that were not A, B or C.

Carley decreed there would be no more Facebook until he delivered a report card with better grades. The result: six weeks offline. "He lived," Carley reports, "with no lasting damage."

Her approach has become increasingly common as technology has changed so much about growing up, including what teenagers value most. For the digital generation, the priority isn't always going out with friends. It's being with them - in text, online.

As another school year begins, and parents hold their children accountable for what happens in and out of the classroom, the threat of losing digital privileges will be a recurring flashpoint.

"It's a modern version of grounding," says Richard Weissbourd, a Harvard psychologist and author of "The Parents We Mean to Be." "It's like taking away a weekend or a couple of weekends. It's a deprivation of social connections in the same way."

In a report earlier this year that captured part of the trend, 62 percent of parents said they had taken away a cellphone as punishment, according to the Pew Internet & American Life Project.

Parents "know how important and vital it is to their teens' existence," says the report's co-author Amanda Lenhart. "They were getting them where it hurt."

In Silver Spring, Carley, 53, is a believer in technology's power.

A week before her son, Ian Winick, came home with slipping grades, Carley had restricted his cellphone privileges because he over-texted for a second month.

Seeing the grades made her conclude: "He can't handle all of this. He just really needs to be unplugged."

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