This post: 5 Things to Consider Before Taking Your Teen’s Phone Away as Punishment
Written by: Marybeth Bock & Nancy Reynolds
Our teen’s cell phone…
It’s typically the first thing they reach for when they wake up in the morning and the last thing they glance at before drifting off to sleep at night.
And, according to studies, the average teen is tethered to their phone throughout the day as well, spending a whopping seven (or more) hours per day on their cell phone talking, texting, scrolling and searching.
If you’re feeling frustrated (or even downright angry) that your teen seems addicted to their phone, that they never look up long enough to have a decent conversation or that, in some ways, their phone is interfering with their responsibilities at home, at school or in life, in general, you’re not alone. In fact, it’s a huge source of frustration and tension for a lot of parents.
So, when your teen blows off taking out the garbage after you’ve asked them three times because they’re too busy scrolling through TikTok videos or they failed a big test because they got lost scrolling through Instagram instead of studying, it’s only natural to want to take their phone away.
After all, we want the punishment we’re doling out to really sink in, and what better way is there to “hit them where it hurts” than by confiscating the one thing that you know is going to be a huge deal to them. Some parents even call the consequence of taking their teen’s phone away, the “nuclear option.”
However, according to some experts, parents need to consider the impact taking their teen’s phone away has not only on their teen but also on the relationship they have with their teen.
5 Things to Consider Before Taking Your Teen’s Phone Away as Punishment
According to the Childmind Institute, “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 their cell phone away?”
The Childmind Institute warns parents that “taking away their teen’s smartphone isn’t the same as turning off the television or banning video games. And, it’s not the same as “grounding” them so they can’t meet up with their friends. Taking away your child’s cell phone is like taking away all those things all at once.”
A Teen’s Phone is the Modern Version of Our Mall
Think back to when you were a teen and the weekend rolled around. Where was your favorite hangout? If you were like a lot of teens in that era, you headed straight to the mall, movie theater or another hangout spot where you and your friends gathered completely free from parental supervision.
Remember how cool it felt to be away from your parents? To be free to choose what you did, who you talked with and even how you acted?
Interestingly, researchers who studied teens and their social media use have likened our teen’s smartphones and online interactions to what we experienced as teens going to the shopping mall.
According to Dr. Boyd, author of It’s Complicated: The Social Lives of Networked Teens, teens don’t hang out at physical places (such as malls) like they did years ago. Instead, they turn to their online world.
It’s sites like Instagram, Snapchat, TikTok, Twitter and YouTube that offer a place where teens can kick back, express themselves, connect with friends and develop their identity without constant oversight.
To our teens, the Internet is their mall. It’s a way for them to interact and connect with each other in a forum that’s not organized or supervised by parents, authorities, teachers, coaches or bosses. It’s their “unstructured,” gathering place that offers them entertainment, camaraderie, information and the freedom to explore who they are and who they want to become.
So, Is Removing Your Teen’s “Lifeline” an Appropriate Form of Punishment?
The short answer is… it depends.
Taking your teen’s phone away, as some parents know all too well, can spark a great deal of anger, frustration and resentment in our teens causing them to withdraw and potentially hold a long-term grudge.
The issue with this, according to experts, is that we’re at a critical crossroads with our teenagers. At a time in our kids’ lives when we should be striving to build a lasting connection with them, the last thing we should be doing is putting barriers in place that push them further away when they’re already spending far too much time behind a closed bedroom door.
When we’re unable to connect or come together with our teens, it makes it more difficult to guide and teach them. Additionally, teenagers are resourceful. When we take their lifeline away, there’s a good chance they’ll resort to sneaky behavior to remain connected to their peers – regardless of the cost.
Does this mean that taking our teen’s phone away should never be a consequence? Of course not. In fact, there are times when taking your teen’s phone away makes perfect sense. But before you do, here are a few things to consider:
#1 Make Sure the Punishment Correlates with Your Teen’s Misbehavior
Beth Peters, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist in Westminster, Colorado, who specializes in teens and families, reminds parents, “If your child violates curfew, taking away their phone is completely unrelated to that behavior. You’re not connecting with your child. You’re making them feel bad, which you might think is helping them learn, but in fact, it’s only helping them learn to be sneaky.”
In essence, when we react to an unrelated rule violation by taking away our teen’s phone, it robs us of the chance to discuss that particular behavior, the meaning behind it, and the opportunity to redirect and guide our kids.
#2 Connect Before Your Correct
Dr. Peters shares this advice, “You have to connect with your kids before you correct them. If you catch your teen taking the car without permission, your first step should be to ask them about the behavior and let them explain what happened. This way, they feel you care about their reasoning and want to understand the entire situation. If you need to punish them, it should have something to do with car usage – not taking away their phone for the weekend.”
#3 Consider the Consequences of Cyber-Snooping
Whether they have something to hide or not, the vast majority of teenagers pretty much despise when their parents snoop on their online activity.
Sure, it’s tempting and we all know we live in an unsafe world which certainly warrants putting strong parental control on our teen’s phones and having occasional “check-ins” (especially younger teens). But studies prove that constant snooping on your teen is doing far more bad than good.
A New York Times article recently explored a study by Dr. Skyler Hawk that found that teenagers with meddling parents weren’t misbehaving any more than teenagers whose parents didn’t spy on them.
A separate study in the Journal of Adolescence found that “Teenagers who have parents who spy on their conversations, share less information with their parents, causing a continuous cycle of distrust between parents and teens.”
Think back to the mall again. As a teen, how would you have reacted if your parents followed behind you and your friends when you got together to hang out? What if they demanded to hear your conversations, dictated which stores you walked into or supervised every single person you interacted with?
#4 When It Makes Sense to Take Your Teen’s Phone Away
If your teen is truly struggling with having conversations and connecting with others in real-time, failing classes due to excessive hours on their phone, or they won’t talk to family members at mealtime, setting limits on phone usage is, by all means, an appropriate consequence.
Experts agree, the best approach is to adopt your own “Family Cell Phone Rules.” Whether it’s making the rule that all phones must be put away at mealtime or that no phones are allowed in the bedrooms past a certain time, get the entire family on the same page to avoid power struggles. Before you take your teen’s phone away when they’re studying or doing homework, consider first putting parental controls in place to avoid social media distractions since most teens need their phones when doing homework and when working with peers on group projects, etc.
In more extreme cases, including perhaps finding that your teen is scrolling through or posting inappropriate content or they’re connecting with strangers on sites, more extreme measures, of course, need to be taken. Consider taking away your teen’s phone for a period of time, restricting use, deleting apps, and diving into in-depth conversations with your teen to educate and guide them. (So often teenagers don’t realize the issue or danger with their online activity.)
(Keep in mind, too, that teens use their cellphones to communicate with you, for directions/GPS and as an alarm which are important considerations to ponder before taking their phone away for any length of time.)
#5 Keep Sight of Long-Term Parenting Goals
We need to be mindful that a huge part of parenting is teaching our kids to use their own best judgment. A slow, steady, age-appropriate release of power is necessary to help prepare our kids for the day they venture off to college or into the real world when they won’t have us to monitor their every move or protect them.
After all, if we don’t actively guide, teach and redirect our kids as it relates to their online activity and allow them at least some freedom, they’ll be left helpless and unaware when they’re on their own.
The bottom line is, information technology and social media will forever be part of our kids’ lives. Rather than suffocate them with strict rules and tight restrictions, we need to help them learn how to use technology to their advantage – in a healthy, balanced, productive manner.
Let’s support them with this by modeling our own healthy phone habits, setting limits, and enforcing consequences that make sense for this developmental stage of their life.
Marybeth Bock, MPH, is Mom to two young adults and one delightful hound dog. She has logged time as a military spouse, childbirth educator, college instructor, and freelance writer. She lives in Arizona and thoroughly enjoys research and writing – as long as iced coffee is involved. Her work can be found on numerous websites and in two books. Follow her on Facebook and Instagram.
If you enjoyed reading, “5 Things to Consider Before Taking Your Teen’s Phone Away as Punishment,” check out these other posts:
Is Your Teen Addicted to Their Phone? Strategies to Help Them Break Free
Cyberbullying is on the Rise: 5 Tips to Keep Your Teen Safe Online
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