Disciplining Kids with a Tech Time-Out

The debate among parents rages: Is taking away a cellphone too harsh a punishment?

All parents have at one time or another threatened their children with the loss of cellphone privileges. But is this the right thing to do today, when a phone is so much more than a phone?

Parents seem split on the idea of tech time-outs.

The smartphone makes the world a kid’s oyster — or the vehicle of despair.

If they are willing to admit it, there is likely no more immediate way that parents can relate to their children than through this intense relationship with cellular devices. The technological tools can connect us with old friends, allow us to make new ones, and assist us in staying on top of our social lives — no matter where in the world we are.

Many children — particularly teens and pre-teens — hold an even stronger grip on their screen-driven social lives than their parents even do. While Facebook may be the conduit for all their friendships and Instagram is crucial to their identity, they use social media and texting to express their often-vacillating positions within their complicated social structures.

Add in Snapchat and unlimited texting — and the smartphone makes the world a kid’s oyster. Either that, or the vehicle of despair.

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So, if kids do disobey or need drastic action, is it ever appropriate to take the cellphone away — or at least impose cellphone restrictions?

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“What most parents regret doing is the knee-jerk scream of, ‘Hand me that phone — that’s it!'” said one Boston-area mother of three. “We parents don’t think before we punish, because we are angry and lost in the moment. We haven’t thought out this punitive measure. And we don’t know what is going on in our kid’s life, either. Was the next text they were going to send one that would repair a friendship, or communicate a homework assignment to a friend?”

Unsurprisingly, most kids would say a tech time-out is too harsh a punishment. Increasingly, kids view getting and using a cellphone as a rite of passage, an expectation — not a privilege. The difference is if a parent clearly defines expectations and limits before handing a nine-year-old an iPhone.

And if parents are honest, cellphones — as distracting and disruptive as they often are — can be helpful when kids need a little purposeful preoccupation in order for grownups to get things done. If we’re grocery shopping or trying to have an adult conversation, cellphones keep our kids immersed and subdued. So are we wise to make these “mother’s helpers” the first thing to go — when it’s time to lay down the law and set our child straight?

It may seem obvious that the things our children hold dear should be the first things to go when it is time to determine punishment — many parents say there is no better way to see a change in behavior than to deprive the child of what he or she needs most.

Related: Device-Addicted Kids Deteriorate

It turns out that to form our parental views on taking away the cellphone, we should first understand the difference between discipline and punishment.

Mental health counselor Patricia A. Young of New Heart Counseling in Lakeland, Florida, explained the difference. “Research has shown that punishment gives no incentive to improve behavior, and through punishment, no learning of appropriate behavior occurs,” she told LifeZette. “Kids learn, improve, and become capable and successful when discipline is used. Discipline is different from punishment: A parent would set clear, consistent rules and consequences that are tied to specific behaviors. This helps children learn the need for improvement in order to get what they desire.”

Ellen Cunis, a mother of three from Amherst, Massachusetts, views communication as key before any discipline takes place — especially reactionary discipline such as arbitrarily taking away a cellphone. “My pastor once said, ‘Rules without relationship equals rebellion.’ The most important thing is to develop a strong relationship with lots of conversation. The rules are secondary.”

“[Discipline] yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it.”

“I take the phone away,” Teresa Citro, a mother of two from Boston, said. “You must parent in a way that gets the kids’ attention. If you punish them by taking away something that doesn’t matter, the disciplining doesn’t work.”

Experts agree the consequences of breaking rules should be task-specific, time-specific, and related to the original behavior. If discipline is being used in its proper form, then the taking of a kid’s cellphone can be very effective.

If used inappropriately or as punishment without communication, it can be detrimental.

The Bible asserts the need for discipline. Scripture tells us in Hebrews 10:11, “For the moment all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it.”

Related: Toddlers and Screens Don’t Mix

Creating clear lines of communication will keep the understanding and relationship with children in check and misbehaving at bay. While taking the cellphone may or may not be the effective choice for specific children, establishing boundaries that allow cellphone use to complement children’s lives rather than be their life may be the best starting point of all.

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