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Grounding your kids from social media doesn’t do much — and could hurt them

Mia, 11, checks her iPhone for a list of her most used apps during a focus group at the Center for Generational Kinetics last year in Austin. (Julia Robinson for The Washington Post)

It all used to be so simple: Break the rules, get grounded and be forbidden from hanging out with your friends. These days, of course, social media makes anywhere a teen hangout, and parents looking to ground their kids might choose to cut off access to social media instead. But that punishment might not have its desired effect — and could even have some harmful consequences for teenagers, according to a new study published Thursday.

Teens forced to take a break from social media lose more than just a few days gossiping with friends, according to research funded and conducted by the University of Chicago's independent research organization, NORC. In partnership with the Associated Press, the researchers surveyed 790 teenagers about whether they'd ever taken a break from social media by choice or by force.

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“The side effect of that is taking away from potential emotional support and from access to information,” said Amanda Lenhart, the study's lead researcher and an expert on social media behavior. “That's not just what's happening in friends' lives, which is one component, but also hard news, current events and that type of information.”

There's no denying that grounding a child from social media makes an immediate impact, Lenhart said. But the survey suggests that it may have a more negative effect than parents realize. The 38 percent of teens who were forced to take a break were more likely to report being anxious about being away from social media and more likely to increase their social media postings after being allowed back on their networks.

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However, teens who opted to take voluntary breaks from social media — 65 percent of those surveyed — tend to handle the lack of constant contact with friends and the online world much better than teens who had it snatched away from them. Across the board, these teens were more likely to say they felt relieved about taking a break and thought the break helped them connect with important people in their lives.

Lenhart said she was surprised by how many teens chose to take voluntary breaks from social media on their own. Still, taking a break — by choice or not — doesn't change much about teens' long-term behavior, the study showed.  Nearly 20 percent of teens who took a break from social media said they visited sites less often than before their breaks, but 53 percent said there was no difference in their behavior.

“That speaks to the power of these platforms,” Lenhart said. “The best minds of our generation are figuring out how to get people to come back and stay engaged, and they do a good job with it,” Lenhart said.

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Twenty-three percent of teens in the study said that they would like to take a break from social media but feel they can't because of the effect it would have on their social lives and on their schoolwork and extracurricular activities. Coaches and teachers often communicate about practices, assignments or other information through social media. Being cut off from their digital social networks cuts teens off from that important information, as well.

Overall, Lenhart said, she hopes that the study sheds a little more light on how deeply embedded social media is into a modern teenager's life and reminds parents of exactly what they're cutting off when they take away social media as part of a punishment.

“It's not simple. It's not just where teens are hanging out with friends,” she said. “There are a lot of layers around social media use, and it's important for everyone to realize there’s more there than meets the eye.”