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."

They talked, and her view was: "You're not entitled to Facebook, you're not entitled to a cellphone. You need to find a way to make these things fit into your life - not become your life."

Carley changed her son's Facebook password, so he could not sign on to the site for his period of banishment.

Suddenly Ian, then a sophomore at Northwood High School, found himself out of the social loop. He began using e-mail more than he ever had. "I had to call people on the phone and stuff, which was weird because I wasn't used to doing it," he says.

Worse, the ban extended over last winter break, when social connections were even more important because school was out.

His mother did not relent. "I'm hardcore," she says.

Only after the teen's report card arrived, showing a 3.25 average for the quarter, did Carley return her son's cellphone and restore his Facebook privileges. "It was amazing how much better he did in school because he didn't have the distraction," she says.

Ian, now 16, acknowledges as much.

"I definitely did a lot better when that stuff was taken away," he says.

Now, he is more moderate in his Facebook and texting habits. "I don't want to have it happen to me again," he says.

Still, Carley says, her choice of discipline led to a few raised eyebrows among other parents. "Really?" she recalls being asked. "I said, 'It's not as hard as you think.' "

She amends: "Well, maybe for the first couple of days."

Expanding the toolbox

The way Chelsea Welsh, 17, sees the phenomenon, parents have not necessarily switched tactics for her generation, so much as expanded them.

"We still get grounded," said Welsh, who goes to Oakcrest School in McLean, "but grounded now includes cellphones and Facebook being taken away.

"It's an umbrella term," she says.

Experts point out that the word discipline actually means to teach and suggest it should be approached that way.

Some go further, saying consequences should be related to the transgression: that taking away a cellphone makes sense for breaking rules about texting, but perhaps not for coming home late; in that case, the consequence might include curfew times.

"The easiest thing to do is take away what your child values in hopes they'll correct their behavior to get it back, but that's going to feel like punishment, not like discipline," says Kenneth R. Ginsburg, author of "A Parent's Guide to Building Resilience in Children and Teens," published by the American Academy of Pediatrics.

Still, parents say the threat of restrictions on Facebook or texting are persuasive as little else.

In University Park, Michele Leonardi, 48, a mother of four, scaled back Facebook privileges after one of her 14-year-old twins had a "lapse in good judgment" several weeks ago while his friends were over. She doesn't want to say what went wrong, but says she required him to "friend" her on Facebook, so she could monitor his wall.

Her view is that "they deserve privacy as long as they don't violate my trust." But the teen's mistake set him back - not forever, she said, but "until I feel comfortable again."

In Alexandria, Sarah Wholey, 42, recalls that when her 15-year-old son forgot to lock the family's townhouse - in spite of many lapses and reminders - his Xbox disappeared for a week. It was not because the family had a break-in. "It really did work," Wholey said. "He locked the house, and he didn't lose so many keys."

When the teen was disrespectful another day, he lost his cellphone. "He got angry at first, but then he came around, and said, 'You're right. I was being rude,' " his mother recalls.

Carrot and stick

Cheryl Juneau, 44, mom of two sons in Alexandria, is well acquainted with the idea of technology as a motivator. Several months ago, her 10- and 12-year-old sons got iPod Touch devices, on which they love to play such games as JellyCar 2 and Angry Birds.

But the boys, who get an hour of screen time a day, can't play with their iPods before beds are made and the playroom is clean. Never before has Juneau seen her sons approach these chores with such determination, she says.

One recent August day, she used the technology a little differently.

One son had a mishap involving a squirt gun and an ill-advised shove. The conflict that followed did not go well.

"I just said, 'That's it. You do not get to use your iPod Touch tomorrow.' "

For her son, she says, it was "an aha moment." She says it started a conversation about what happened, why the privilege was withdrawn, what it felt like to be the other person in the scuffle, and who her son really wanted to be.

It was a compelling message, she says. "I can't think of anything else I could take away that would be more keenly felt."

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