Privacy & Security

Punish Kids by Taking Away Mobile Devices? A #TBT Look Back to 2010

By Benjamin Herold — September 11, 2014 2 min read
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If your teenagers miss curfew or otherwise break the rules, do you take away their mobile phone privileges?

Four years ago, the answer for 62 percent of parents surveyed by the Pew Internet and American Life Project was “yes.” My forebears here at Digital Education looked at the issue, riffing off a 2010 Washington Post piece based in part on the Pew report.

The [Post] story notes how more parents are wising up to the reality that the computer or smartphone is their child's most prized social tool, thus making revocation an effective measure. Reporter Donna St. George, who weaves vignettes of family examples with context about teens' social reality, also noted that some experts warn revoking such privileges should only be done when it relates to the offense--such as misusing a device during school hours or accessing improper websites at home.

In the Post piece, Amanda Lenhart, a co-author on the Pew report, said that parents had become increasingly aware of how vital cellphones had become in children’s lives and knew that denying access to those devices as a form of punishment was “getting them where it hurt.”

Lenhart, now an associate director at the Pew Research Center, said in an interview this week that the parents face a steeper set of challenges now than four years ago.

For starters, smartphones are more ubiquitous and substantially more powerful than in 2010. And as those devices have become more ingrained into family life, revoking access can feel as much like a punishment to a parent—who might need to text their teen to pick up milk on the way home, or want to check in on a Friday night—as to the teen.

Furthermore, the ecosystem of software and apps that students now use via a mix of devices is vastly larger and more complex.

“Parents only have 24 hours in a day,” Lenhart said.

Pew hasn’t followed up with more surveys on discipline-by-cellphone, so Lenhart wasn’t able to provide an apples-to-apples update on exactly how the trend has evolved.

But over the past five or so years, she said, the percentage of parents who report monitoring their kids’ technology use has remained fairly consistent: About half of parents say they monitor computer use, while about one-third say they monitor mobile use. Lenhart said her sense remains “that parents want to believe they’re being good parents” by keeping tabs on how their children use such technology.

That doesn’t mean it actually happens that way, though, or that parents’ strategies have evolved to be any more effective than hey were four years ago.

And, real talk: If me and the other Instagram-addicted dads out there really want to get serious on this issue, we’ll first have to holster our own devices.

There’s no way around it, Lenhart said: “You gotta look up from your smartphone to notice how much your child is texting.”

Graphic from 2010 Washington Post story, Parents use ‘digital’ grounding as a 21st century disciplinary tool. Data based on 2010 research by the Pew Internet and American Life Project.

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Digital Education blog.