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How To Make Digital Grounding Work

How to Make Digital Grounding WorkTeaching kids to do the right thing isn’t easy. Basically, parents have three options: Encourage good behavior. Ignore poor behavior (especially when it’s caused by temporary factors such as fatigue, hunger or simple immaturity.) Discourage bad behavior by associating it with disagreeable consequences.

For wired kids, the most disagreeable consequence is often loss of digital privileges. Although parents have been doing it for years, “digital grounding” got its name in 2010 when research from the Pew Internet and American Life Project reported that 62 percent of parents had disciplined their kids by taking away a cellphone.

Grounding of any kind is simply a big kid version of “time out.” The theory is that, if a child is disconnected from other people for a while, they will a) have extra time to think about what they did wrong and b) miss their social connections so much they won’t want to repeat the problem behavior. Now that kids do most of their socializing online, the only effective way to disconnect them is to confiscate their digital devices or limit access to texting, social media and interactive games. 

To make digital grounding effective, parents should be aware of the distinction between discipline and punishment. Both words are rooted in Latin, but discipline comes from a root that means “to teach” while punishment comes from a word that means “to inflict pain.” The impulse to punish is understandable, especially when a child’s behavior has caused distress for a parent. The theory, of course, is that making a child suffer for a mistake will discourage that mistake in the future. Unfortunately, it’s not that simple. Punishment often triggers resentment, which, in turn, makes kids devious or even defiant.

In contrast, the goal of discipline is to help children learn from mistakes and develop the self-control that guides better choices in the future. Instead of doing the right thing because he or she is afraid of external consequences, a child who has the benefit of good discipline develops an inner sense of what is right based on trust, respect and an ability to think about long term goals.

Come to think of it, those three qualities—trust, respect and clarity about long-term goals—are also what parents will need if they are going to make digital grounding a form of discipline in the best sense of the word. Here are some suggestions about how to do just that:

Establish the idea of digital privileges. Parents don’t give toddlers their own cellphones because they aren’t responsible enough to use them properly. When your child is old enough for a phone or any other digital device or activity, be sure he or she understands that access is a privilege that has been earned by demonstrating responsibility in other ways. Some parents reinforce this idea by making use of digital devices contingent upon specific behaviors—no screen time until your room is clean or homework is finished. The corollary, of course, is that continued access depends upon appropriate behavior—and that a child who has been grounded can earn back digital privileges by demonstrating more maturity.  

Be clear about expectations. Children are more likely to experience grounding as punishment if it seems like a random response to behavior parents don’t like. Whenever possible, be clear in advance about what you expect and why it matters. As children get older, listen to their point of view and modify rules to reflect their growing capabilities. House rules that are clear and make sense to kids are less likely to be broken. And, when transgressions do occur, kids are less likely to resent calm, even-handed enforcement of penalties that have been discussed in advance.

Connect consequences to behavior. Many experts believe the most effective consequences grow logically out of misbehavior. A child who sends inappropriate text messages loses cellphone access precisely because he’s demonstrated an inability to use the device responsibly. A child whose grades suffer because she’s gossiping on Facebook when she says she’s researching a paper can’t use social media until she makes schoolwork a priority. In such cases, parents may actually want to say that the device is causing a problem so it’s being grounded (instead of the child).

Enlist tech support. One of the best things about technology is that there are “off” buttons that make it possible for parents to enforce digital grounding. If you’ve decided it’s in your child’s best interest to use the computer only for homework, use a timer to back up a digital curfew. Curtail access to specific websites by changing passwords or using the blocking software provided by your ISP. Contact your cellphone carrier to find out whether you can temporarily disable services such as texting or web access.  Some companies will also let you restrict calls so your child can use a cellphone only for emergency calls or to get in touch with you.

Think ahead. Before blurting out, “You’re grounded!”, parents should anticipate consequences—for themselves. The Pew Report found that many parents didn’t follow through on cellphone bans because they needed to reach their kids on the phone. The same thing may be true of social media or even video games. If your child depends on an afternoon gaming session to relieve stress or social media to maintain friendships, you’ll want to think carefully about whether taking away those privileges is the best way to achieve your goals.

Used judiciously, digital grounding may actually improve family relationships. Some parents find that unplugging a child for a while opens up opportunities for conversation and other shared activities. Though they aren’t likely to see it that way at the time, many children will, in retrospect, be grateful for parents who insisted that they step away from digital distractions so they could reconnect with a better, more responsible version of themselves.    

Carolyn Jabs, M.A., raised three computer savvy kids including one with special needs.

Published: February 2013


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