When Should You Come Between a Teenager and Her Phone?
The pros and cons of every parent's nuclear option
Kate Gosselin, the mom in the reality series Kate Plus 8, isn’t exactly someone we’d turn to for inspirational parenting. But she recently said something on a television special that caught our attention. Speaking of her two 13-year-old daughters, she tells the camera: “I got those girls cell phones and iPads so that I could take them away.”
Gosselin makes the move sound especially manipulative, but in fact taking away “screen time,” or access to electronic devices, has become a parent’s go-to consequence for unacceptable behavior at practically every age, from toddlers to teens. And if you’re talking about teens, there’s an added dimension. As Gosselin puts it rather crudely, “You get their attention because you cut them off from their friends.”
For teens, the threat of having their phone confiscated or, worse, having their phone searched by their parents, would seem to be a powerful deterrent to bad behavior. At least parents would like to think it’s a deterrent. But what is really going through the mind of your teen, when you take away her phone?
Confiscating a teen’s smartphone isn’t the same as turning off the television or banning videogames. It’s not the same as barring them from using the telephone or “grounding” them so they can’t meet their friends at the mall. Taking away a kid’s phone is taking away all those things at once and more.
Social media replaces the mall
It’s easy to see your child bent over her phone, thumbs tapping away, and think that she is missing out on “real” communication—the kind you get in person. But all that virtual communication has a positive and developmentally important role.
Alice Marwick, co-director of Fordham University’s McGannon Center for Communication Research, and danah boyd, a principal researcher at Microsoft Research New England, have spent years studying youth social media usage. For a recent project they interviewed 165 teens across the country from varying socio-economic and ethnic backgrounds. One of their findings was that social media sites have become the modern day equivalent of hanging out at the mall or movie theater.
Social media networks provide a way for kids to interact with each other that’s not organized and supervised by authorities, as school, sports, and other extracurriculars are. Teenagers today spend an unprecedented amount of time in structured activity, and many gathering places are off limits to them. “Many physical sites of gathering explicitly or implicitly restrict teenagers,” Dr. boyd writes in It’s Complicated: The Social Lives of Networked Teens. “Teens cannot enter bars because they are underage, they lack the economic resources to gather in eating establishments, and when teens gather in parking lots or on street corners, they’re often accused of loitering.” Dr. boyd argues that networked spaces like Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and Tumblr are among the few places where teens are able to kick back and express themselves, connect to their peers, and develop their identity without adult oversight.
“Teens use the internet to experiment with things,” Dr. Marwick says. “They try on identities, they posture, they perform. And many of those things, when parents take them out of context, may seem problematic—when they’re posting profanity, slang, selfies—but when you actually see what the young person is doing, they’re experimenting with an identity, which is a very typical and healthy part of adolescent development.”
What happens when you confiscate that phone?
“To adolescents the social network and contact with friends is the paramount developmental task and focus,” says Beth Peters, a clinical psychologist in Westminster, Colorado, who specializes in teens and families. “When you remove a teen’s lifeline to their friends, there will be a major emotional backlash, a breakdown of the parent-child relationship.”
When phones are taken away as punishment, Dr. Peters says, kids tend to withdraw from the parent. “They don’t try to solve their problem. They don’t talk to the parent. You’re really setting yourself up for a dishonest teen because they need that contact and will resort to sneaky behavior to get it.”
Some kids feel that when parents confiscate their phone the potential invasion of privacy is worse than the loss of access.
Mariella, a junior in high school in San Francisco, said that if her grades have been slipping, her parents take her phone at night to minimize her distraction. But she says they don’t search the phone. “They don’t look at it because they understand the privacy aspect of it,” she said. “But with a lot of my friends, if their phone is getting taken away that means it’s also getting searched.” When asked how her friends respond to these searches, she said they feel as if their parents think they’re “untrustworthy,” and in turn, they don’t trust their parents.
How much is too much?
Still, many parents can’t help wondering if all the time kids spend online is detracting from other important kinds of development. Every single week, Dr. Peters says, she sees children who are in a conflict with their parents over how they’re using media devices. As she points out, media cannot teach your child all the important aspects of face-to-face communication, like social cues or body language. She even had one teenage client who was so reliant on his phone that he wanted to text her during a therapy session instead of speaking to her directly.
That is an extreme example, but an overreliance on social media can be damaging to a child’s communication skills. Catherine Steiner-Adair, author of The Big Disconnect, worries that this is the first generation of teenagers who find it awkward to talk on the phone or have conversations in real time. “What we see in kids who primarily text or instant message is a downtick in their ability to stay in a dinner conversation, to focus and perform active listening,” Dr. Steiner-Adair says. “Our capacity to listen and hear the tone of voice, the feelings behind the spoken word or text, is one of our most essential human tools for communicating and connecting.” Without practice, kids risk losing out on these important conversational skills.
Many experts recommend that parents give kids a reality check by setting limits on phone usage that the whole family follows. For example, families can set dinner aside as a time when everyone puts down their phones and checks in with each other. For families who are on the go, car rides are another good time to unplug and have a conversation.
To help teens learn self-regulation skills, Dr. Steiner-Adair suggests using technology to tame technology. “Applications like Rescue Time and Freedom are a great resource for limiting their distractions online,” she says. These applications monitor Internet usage and can be set to block distracting sites after a set amount of time. Such tools are particularly good for kids who find themselves too distracted or overwhelmed by social media when they’re doing homework or before bed.
When should you step in?
Of course parents should limit their teenagers’ access to phones and other media when they feel kids are using them inappropriately. But Dr. Marwick thinks the dangers to teenagers sharing and socializing online can be exaggerated; most teens are better at avoiding cyber mistakes than you might think. And many are getting smarter about how they present themselves on social media, using Facebook to positively brand themselves for college and keeping multiple Instagram accounts for personal use or portfolio work.
Shannon, 18, from Minneapolis, uses Instagram more than any other social media application because it centers on photography, her passion. “Instagram is an easy way to share my spurts of creativity with the world,” she says. This push to share things with “the world,” as scary as it can be for parents, is healthy and a normal part of teen development. In this case though, “the world” is actually only her approved followers because her account is set to “private,” and one of those followers is her mother, Kate.
Kate is also friends with Shannon on Facebook and finds that being able to monitor her daughter’s social media assuages any fears she has about what Shannon is putting online. If she sees anything questionable—like a photo or post that seems too suggestive—she will talk to Shannon about it in person, or ask her older sister to speak to her.
To take the phone or not to take the phone
One of the basic rules of effective discipline is to make any punishment related to the misbehavior. “If your child violates curfew, taking away the phone is completely unrelated to that behavior,” says Dr. Peters. “You’re not connecting with the kid. You are making him feel bad, which you think is helping him learn, but in fact is helping him learn to be sneaky or learn that you are the punisher.”
And when the lapse in judgment is related to phone use, Dr. Peters thinks that going for the lesson, instead of the punishment, is more effective with teens. “My philosophy is that you have to connect with your kids before you correct them,” she says. If you catch your teen posting something inappropriate, then your first step should be asking your teen about the behavior, letting him explain his thinking.
Step two would be limiting phone privileges: prohibiting texting for a period, or docking the phone in your room if it’s interfering with other tasks. This, too should be targeted to the problematic behavior. “You don’t have to take the whole phone away,” notes Dr. Steiner-Adair. “If your child goes on Snapchat or Instagram and sends an inappropriate photo then delete that app from their phone. For a reasonable amount of time. Don’t be too intense.”
Given that learning to use your own judgment is a big part of growing up, it’s important for parents to realize that regulating their own phone behavior is something kids need to learn, too, sometimes by trial and error. “The goal here is to teach kids how to manage their own relationship to technology,” says Dr. Steiner-Adair, “knowing that technology is the conduit to their entire life.”