'E-Grounding' Parents' New Disciplinary Weapon

Grounding once meant being confined to the house or handing over the car keys. But isolating a teen to reflect on his misbehavior is harder in the age of Facebook and cell phones. The Pew Internet Project's Amanda Lenhart describes how more parents are taking away social media tools to keep kids in line.

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JENNIFER LUDDEN, host:

Used to be that when you needed to punish a wayward teen and really wanted to get their attention, grounding was the way to go - no hanging out after school, no parties on the weekend, just a long, boring stretch at home.

No more. Now kids at home can reach out to their friends with texting, Facebook, Skype, a 24-hour digital line that in a sense is the new way of socializing.

So how do you clip the wings of teens today? The Pew Internet Project found that nearly two-thirds of parents have revoked the mobile phone, a move the Washington Post recently called digital grounding.

Have you digitally grounded your child? How? And did it work? And does cutting off that connection hurt you as much as them? We want your stories and your questions. Our number is 800-989-8255. Our email address is talk@npr.org. And you can join the conversation at our website. Go to npr.org and click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Amanda Lenhart led the research for Pew. She is a senior research specialist there, investigating technology in the lives of children, teens and families. And she joins us from the Pew Internet Project's office in Washington, D.C. Welcome.

Ms. AMANDA LENHART (Pew Internet & American Life Project): Thanks for having me, Jennifer.

LUDDEN: So Amanda, is the good old-fashioned go-to-your-room grounding thing just a thing of the past?

Ms. LENHART: Well, it's a little bit more complicated today than it used to be, certainly, because sending somebody to their room doesn't have the same effect if there's a laptop in there that connects you to your social network. So certainly to be more effective in your grounding today, you might want to be employing some restrictions on the digital tools that your kids have in their -at their disposal.

LUDDEN: And how can you do that?

Ms. LENHART: Well, I think it depends on the teen, obviously. If you have a 12-year-old boy who's really into video games, you're probably going to be more interested in taking away his or her Xbox - or his Xbox, than you are going to be in taking away his Facebook page, which he may or may not have.

But if you have a really social kid who is using Facebook, who is using instant messaging and who has a cell phone, and that's probably about 75 percent of teens today, you have to decide what - where are you going to employ these restrictions. If you really want your grounding to be this total sort of return to the home and a sort of a pulling back from your friends and your social relationships, then you will need to cut off those other avenues.

LUDDEN: And let's just remind ourselves of the pain that can inflict. You recently found that the average teen sends about 50 texts a day and a third send double that?

Ms. LENHART: Yeah, more than - in fact, about a third - yes, a hundred, and about 15 percent send 200, which is about 6,000 texts a month. And for many teens, it is really the primary way they are talking with their friends.

Now, that said, of course, face-to-face interaction is still really important. If you ask the teen, how would you prefer to talk to your friends, they're going to say I want to see them in person. But that's not always possible in this modern era. I mean, it's hard to see your friends. Your friends may be spread around and not easy to get to. And so your text messaging and your social network becomes this new kind of third place, literally, a digital place to hang out.

LUDDEN: So do you have any idea of this - of the - in your poll, you know, parents who e-ground or ground their - cut off their kids' social outreach via digital means, are those kids allowed to go out to the movies or hang out in the mall or is that also part of the package?

Ms. LENHART: I think it really - it depends on the parent, obviously. We - our survey really only focused on cell phones and asked a pretty basic question about whether or not you take that phone away as punishment of some kind. And as you mentioned in the opener, it's about 62 percent of parents who say, yeah, I've used to phone to - taken away the phone as punishment.

LUDDEN: Okay. What - go ahead.

Ms. LENHART: I was going to say, we don't know necessarily what parents are doing, whether they just use the digital tool, then sure, you can go out and hang out in the neighborhood but you can't actually go online, or whether or they actually totally pull everything back. And it probably depends on the parent.

LUDDEN: You can sort of imagine someone saying: Oh, a return to the good old days. Why don't you go hang out at the...

(Soundbite of laughter)

LUDDEN: ...the mall instead of that email thing?

Ms. LENHART: Why don't you go out - go outside and play?

LUDDEN: Let's take a call now. Rich is on the phone from Rochester, New York. Hi, Rich.

RICH (Caller): Hi. How are you doing?

LUDDEN: Good.

RICH: I've done this, and I think it works perfectly. I mean, like, my son uses the computer the most. And if he doesn't keep it clean, I just go and change the password of the computer. When I grounded him from his cell phone, I took it away. And he just has to make a way of getting in contact with me when he needs to. And I've taken things like TV out of his room and just, you know, just using - I turned off the wireless, change the password on the wireless, the, you know, the code on the wireless so that...

LUDDEN: In the house, you mean?

RICH: Yeah. And I just change it. Change it on my PC and he just can't use the wireless. I mean, basically...

LUDDEN: But, wait. But you can - you use - oh, you know the password.

RICH: Oh, yeah. I can use the...

LUDDEN: Okay. But when you said he has a way to reach you, when - do you cut off the phone somehow but...

RICH: Exactly. He has the - most of the time, your children are trying to reach you because they want the convenience of being picked up or something like that. I just tell him, listen, if you can't - you know, he has to be cognizant, you know, of where he's going and how he's going to do these things. I mean, I don't make it - we all survived without the cell phone. A lot of us - I'm talking about most children didn't have cell phones five years ago. There's a way to do it. Life goes on.

LUDDEN: So he just figures out another way to reach you if he needs...

RICH: That's right. And he figures out another way. But, you know, they - like people would say, well, they can use their phone if don't have a computer. Believe me, they want the convenience of sitting down at a computer, using the cams, the web cams and all those things. There's a lot that goes on with it. And it works. I mean, they don't like it. And you just - you know, parents have to use what's at their disposal to make children realize that they need to do -what they need to do. I don't think this is rocket science stuff.

LUDDEN: Right. Well, Rich, thank you so much for the call. Amanda, Rich said that he just tells his son, figure out another way to reach me. But in your survey, you've found that some parents kind of had second thoughts about cutting off communication because of how it affected them. Is that right?

Ms. LENHART: We did - well, actually heard it on the focus groups that we did around the survey, where we asked kids about, you know, what happens when your parents take away the cell phone? And what we didn't expect to hear - what we did hear was that a number of kids said, well, you know, my parents actually -after a couple of days in to the grounding, they actually gave me the phone back, because they were really - they were so annoyed that they were having a hard time reaching me. It was such a pain for them, logistically, to make our lives work without me having access to a cell phone that they just gave it back to me, and we work something out.

So, certainly, the grounding sometimes backfires and actually becomes just as much as punishment for parents as it does for kids. At least - particularly in regards to...

LUDDEN: Maybe they didn't realize how integrated - how much part of their life this digital communication has become, as well.

Ms. LENHART: Absolutely, absolutely. I mean, I think parents would tell you that the phone is indispensable and that we actually now arrange our lives in such a way - we've actually, in some ways, forgotten how to do what our caller just talked about, which is plan in advance.

LUDDEN: Right.

LUDDEN: You know, you set up - well, I'm going to meet you at 3 o'clock in front of the gym. Now, it's, well, call me when practice is over and then I'll come and get you. And so, I think we've become used to this more, sort of planning on the fly. And I think moving away from these tools require families to go back to an older style which, in some ways, is less convenient.

LUDDEN: All right. Let's take another call. Annette(ph) is on the phone from Tulsa, Oklahoma. Hi, Annette.

ANNETTE (Caller): Hi.

LUDDEN: Go ahead.

ANNETTE: Well, actually, it would kind of scare me to take my daughter's cell phone away, because I like to have that communication with her. And also, because I don't think they start to ground her boyfriend as well. But I take her car keys away and make her catch a ride with her sister, that seems to be the most inconvenient and humiliating thing I can do to her.

(Soundbite of laughter)

ANNETTE: So that works better for us than taking away her - and she has to have her computer for her homework and everything else. And that's just way too much, (unintelligible), have - to have to do so. If I know that her car is safely - stayed with her sister's house where her sister in college can enjoy driving a nice car for a little while, which also really irritates her, then that's more than enough for me.

(Soundbite of laughter)

LUDDEN: Amanda?

Ms. LENHART: Well, it sounds like, you know - and that is really - she is doing - working with what she has. And she's tailoring her punishment to her daughter in her particular needs, and in her particular specification. So I think that's, you know, that's really - and what parents should be doing. You know, when you're devising a punishment for your child, you're deciding what seems to be the most effective, given your own child's, you know, likes and dislikes.

LUDDEN: All right. Annette, thanks for that phone call. We have an email here from Rachel(ph) who says, just last year, my husband and I finally realized the only thing that gets our 14-year-old daughter's attention is to do some or all of the following: restrict private Internet browsing or surfing on a laptop, cut off phone through AT&T, through websites, confiscate phone, confiscate computer usage. After a week or two, she is putty in our hands and it still works.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. LENHART: Well again, you know, it all depends on sort of what is your issue. I mean, certainly some people are using the phones and using all these technologies as punishment for a variety of problems, whether that's, you know, some sort of problem at school or sort of external misbehavior. And some are using it to try to address technologically-related problems. You know, I'm going to take your phone away because I think you're spending too much time on it.

LUDDEN: Right.

Ms. LENHART: So you just - you really, again, have to, you know, figure out what works best for your child. I mean, I know...

LUDDEN: What fits the crime.

Ms. LENHART: Exactly. What fits the crime. And, you know, certainly, you know, in my own household, we have problems with people spending a little too much time on the computer. So we even set, you know, time limits on everybody's computer in the house. But for other people, maybe it's a surfing issue and you're not excited about the kind of content your child is, you know, exposed to.

And so, you may want to be changing the ways in which your child can access material online. And there's a bunch of tools out there, both from your ISP and from, you know, software packages that you can buy that can allow you to help modify, you know, your child's access to this content, whether as a short time - short-term, one time punishment or a constant thing.

LUDDEN: All right. We - I want to go another phone call. But first, can you tell us what is the typical age that kids get cell phones these days?

Ms. LENHART: It's actually between - it's about evenly divided between 12 and 13. So it's right at that kind of transition between, you either get it as you enter middle school or you get it as you enter high school. But by the time you sort of - it's right in that middle school period of time when most kids or young...

LUDDEN: About the time that - when I was young, we started calling. Hiding the phone in the closet and making phone calls, right? Or maybe a little, but I think I didn't start that until later, actually.

Ms. LENHART: I think it has to do, both with your - with the child's desire to be able to reach their friends and, you know, again, that sort of blossoming social world. But I think it also has to do with - these are a time in life when kids are actually getting a little bit more freedom, they have a little bit more opportunity to go out into the world. And the cell phone makes today's modern parent feel more comfortable about allowing their child to wander a little bit more freely.

LUDDEN: Right. We're going to take another phone call. Darna(ph) is in Pine Bluff, Arkansas. Go right ahead.

DARNA (Caller): Yes, I have done this with both of my children, for grades, generally, trouble at school. It worked great with one - didn't work with the other one at all. I would take away - well, they didn't have cell phones, but they weren't allowed to use house phones, no TV, no computer, no gaming.

The youngest, it just drove him nuts. He couldn't stand not being able to be on the computer to talk with his friends. My oldest, he was perfectly content to lay back on his bed and daydream, write music or play the guitar.

LUDDEN: So you had to figure out something else?

DARNA: Yeah. I ended up having to, you know, you kind of hate to cut that creativity, but I generally would end up taking his guitar from him.

LUDDEN: Wow.

DARNA: It'd break my heart (unintelligible). And it was just odd, two kids raised the same way - worked great for one, none for the other.

LUDDEN: That's really interesting. Darna, thanks so much for the call.

DARNA: Thank you.

LUDDEN: You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And let's hear now from Flo(ph) in Appaloosa, Louisiana. Hi, Flo.

FLO (Caller): Hi. I have a 13-year-old, and I do the digital grounding and it works awesome, and I'm going to continue to do it.

LUDDEN: So how do you do it?

FLO: I usually take phone and computer, and that means Facebook and everything and that kills him. And it's usually for a week or two, and he gets to earn it back. So all the things that he didn't do to get the phone and computer taken away, he has to start doing consistently.

LUDDEN: All right. Well, congratulations there. I have a question. Amanda, is it not the case - and we're hearing a lot of success stories here. Are you not seeing that whatever technological-control parents come up with, these tech savvy teens can find a way around?

Ms. LENHART: Well, I think that's certainly an issue. I mean, I actually thought that one of our callers is going to tell us that the regulations on the phone and the computer didn't work because the child was getting around them. Because there certainly are kids who are tech savvy enough and who have enough time and incentive to get around whatever kind of technological barriers we're putting up in front of them to keep them offline, in a way, from their sort of online social spaces.

Not every kid is that savvy, and there's a lot of, you know, very - you know, if you reset passwords and if you have parental controls set, there's a lot of things that parents can do and plenty of kids either won't try or don't have the knowledge to get around it. But there certainly are a subset who do, and who would be delighted to spend their time now in solitary, in their room, hacking away at the computer controls that you've put on to their machine.

LUDDEN: Flo, thanks so much for your call. Well, because I remember, Amanda, your study did find the kids have certainly a knack for getting around restrictions in school when they're not supposed to use text messages.

Ms. LENHART: Exactly. I mean, certainly. And kids are - even in schools where phones are banned, more than half of kids have sent a text message from class. So you're not even supposed to have the phone on campus, but yet they managed to use the phone in the classroom. So, certainly there's a lot of incentive - I mean, this is a time in life when you want to be in touch with your friends, you want to talk with your friends, you don't want to be left out. And these technological devices are now the ways in which a lot of that communications happens. And so there's a - it's hard to take it away. That's why these punishments work. I mean, these parents are right. It hurts. It hurts when you take it away.

LUDDEN: Right. Let's get a couple more parents in here quickly. We have an email from Teresa(ph) in Woodside, California. I'm a parent who does ground my kids by restricting their phone, but I use a Smart Kids program that allows them to communicate only with me and up to the 15 - up to 15 phone numbers on their allowed list. This works to not cut off my communication, but allows an appropriate punishment by limiting the phone. It works.

Now, let's hear from Gretchen(ph) Waterford - is that right, Waterword(ph), Waterford, Connecticut. Hi, Gretchen.

GRETCHEN (Caller): Hello. Thank you for taking my call.

LUDDEN: What do you do?

GRETCHEN: Hi. My daughter, one time, thought that it would be interesting - her friends were texting her at night where I couldn't hear her, and she was camping outside in the backyard and went out at night very late, after midnight. And so I found out. I took her phone from her as a punishment, and I found out through the cell phone company, we can put parental restrictions on what time she can send her text messages out. So she is restricted to 9 o'clock on weekdays and 11 o'clock on weekends.

LUDDEN: Now, did you tell her that, or did - was she, like, typing away, not realizing they weren't going out?

GRETCHEN: Oh, no, we told her because we had taken the phone away for about a month, and then she had to earn the privilege of the phone back, but she continues to have these restrictions. Um, it's a year later, and it's great because she doesn't need to talk to anybody after 9 o'clock...

LUDDEN: Right.

GRETCHEN: ...or 11 (audio gap) on weekends because she's a teenager.

LUDDEN: All right. Well, Gretchen, thank you so much for the call. Amanda Lenhart, we've just got a few seconds left. But anything you see ahead in this battle of wills over technology?

Ms. LENHART: Well, I think, you know, the technology keeps getting more interesting and more delightful. And so I think it'll be interesting to see what's the new technology on the horizon and how kids and parents choose to use it, both for good and for ill.

LUDDEN: Amanda Lenhart joined us from the offices of the Pew Internet Project in Washington, D.C., where she's a senior research specialist. Thank you so much.

Ms. LENHART: Thank you so much.

LUDDEN: Oh, thank you.

Ms. LENHART: This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Jennifer Ludden.

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