Once upon a time, when kids got in trouble, their parents punished them by grounding them. After all, what could be worse than a Saturday night stuck at home with the parents, right?
Nowadays, though, teens’ social lives look a lot different than they did 20, 10, or even five years ago. Today, a whole lot of the socializing your kids do is likely to be done online. That’s especially true in the wake of the pandemic, with lockdowns merely accelerating the transition of our social environment to the digital space.
Because our kids spend so much time interacting with their peers through their smartphones, it can feel as if taking the phone away is tantamount to old-school grounding. The problem, though, is that taking a teenager’s smartphone away can have far more significant consequences than a Saturday night spent grounded at home had for us.
In fact, depriving a teen of their phone can generate mental health repercussions that parents likely never expected or intended.
The New Lunch Table, Mall, and Sports Field, All at Once
Back in the good (or bad?) old days, the school cafeteria was where social status was defined, alliances were formed, and friendships were nurtured. Today, though, a teen’s social identity and support networks are forged and affirmed not by who they sit with at lunch.
Rather, these emerge from the digital groups teens participate in, and, principally, through the text threads they’re a part of. Research shows, for example, that social media today is often the primary forum through which teenagers establish relationships, maintain a sense of connection and community, and cultivate a sense of identity without the oversight and intercession of adults.
Thus, denying teens access to their smartphones can leave them feeling marginalized and isolated, cut off from their primary connection with the outside world and the peer relationships that help to define that world and their place in it.
This is especially apparent when you consider the increasing popularity of eSports among teens and young adults. Now, more than ever, young people are experiencing both the responsibility and the support that being a part of a competitive team can alone provide.
That means that when kids are denied access to their phones, they’re not only missing out on the opportunity to play, but they may also be letting down their teammates.
eSports have been shown to nurture essential soft skills, including those associated with strong teamwork. Taking away their phone may not only impede their ability to cultivate these skills but may also damage the child’s relationships with the teammates who were counting on them. This, in turn, can lead to feelings of anxiety, depression, guilt, loneliness, or low self-esteem.
Even more significant, perhaps, is the damage that using the smartphone as a tool for “punishment” may have on the parent/child relationship. Because of the profound importance of the device to teen’s social, emotional, and intellectual lives, denying access to the phone to punish your child for misbehavior not related to the phone itself can not only alienate your child, but can also lay the groundwork for resentment and retribution.
The Smartphone as Therapist
It can be easy to dismiss the smartphone as little more than frivolous entertainment, an annoying distraction from “real” life. The reality, though, is that for many teens, the smartphone is an emotional lifeline.
For example, several sophisticated mental health apps are available at low or no cost on Android and iPhone devices. Meditation and mindfulness apps, for instance, can help teens manage stress, reduce anxiety, and re-center when life becomes overwhelming.
Similarly, for teens who need an extra bit of help, their smartphones can enable them to connect instantly with a mental health therapist or online peer support group. Endeavoring to navigate the day without access to these resources can only exacerbate the challenges that a struggling teen may be facing.
Not a Rule-Free Zone
Even though taking away a teen’s smartphone might not be as simple or easy a punishment as grounding once was, that doesn’t mean that your kid’s device is off-limits, nor that it should be a rule-free zone.
While a strict prohibition may not be desirable or feasible as a punishment, it’s still important to establish boundaries regarding your teen’s smartphone use. It may even be necessary to take the phone away in some extreme circumstances and under controlled conditions.
For instance, if your kid is repeatedly violating your instruction to limit their time on Instagram and you’re finding that it’s affecting their grades, then you might temporarily disable the app until their scores rebound. Similarly, you might establish “no device” hours before bedtime, disabling your wi-fi so that your teen has no choice but to log off during these golden hours of family and relaxation time.
Because this is a standard house rule, and not a punishment, your teen, and their friends, will be able to prepare for these hours of inaccessibility each evening. This way, you’re still giving your teen time to build the connections they want and need while also modeling discipline. You’re showing them how to live both with the cellphone and without it. In the process, you’re requiring them to learn balance, to integrate the technology into their life, without allowing the technology to become their life.
Taking away a teen’s smartphone is not as simple as merely confiscating the device. Taking your kid’s phone can have some significant mental health repercussions that you might never have anticipated. The good news, though, is that with strategy and care, you can create firm, healthy boundaries regarding your child’s smartphone use while still enabling them to enjoy the social and emotional benefits of the technology.