Several weeks ago, I took away my son’s phone after he failed to complete a homework assignment on time. Two days later, I texted to alert him to a change in pick-up plans and was incensed when he didn’t respond. “Why didn’t you acknowledge my texts?” I demanded when we were finally reunited. He, of course, looked at me like I was crazy. “You took away my phone,” he said. Oh. Right. #ParentFail.
Taking away your teen’s phone can be a reflexive response to misbehavior. After all, what do they value more than their phones? And if that’s your go-to punishment, you’re not alone. A 2016 Pew Research Center report finds that 65 percent of parents take away cell phones or Internet privileges as punishment.
But when today’s teens rely on their smartphones for their social life, their homework, and—let’s face it—their ability to communicate with us, is it a valid punishment? Should parents take away cell phones? Here’s some advice on how to use this technique effectively.
Before You Take the Cell Phone Away from Your Teenager:
1. Set limits in advance.
Do you feel like ripping the phone away because your teen is glued to it at family dinner or texting well past bedtime? The time to set parameters is before the infraction, says Dr. Larry Rosen, professor emeritus and past chair of the psychology department at California State University, Dominguez Hills and author of Rewired: Understanding the iGeneration and the Way They Learn.
Sit down together to discuss proper use of the phone, inviting your teen’s perspective as well, and create a list of phone behaviors with rewards for good behaviors and punishments for bad ones. For example, you might tell teens that if they fail to come to dinner because they are Snapchatting, they will lose the phone for an hour after dinner. And if they come right away, they can have an extra few minutes at night. “Don’t be afraid to let your teen help with these guidelines, and make concessions to let them have a few wins,” he says.
2. Make an appropriate punishment for teenagers.
Make the punishment fit the crime. In other words, don’t arbitrarily take away the phone for an unrelated infraction, like missing curfew. If the phone has little to do with the crime, then taking away phones doesn’t work.
“Natural consequences make the best teachers, so it only makes sense to take it away for issues that involve the device or communication that happens on the device,” says Doreen Dodgen-Magee, a psychologist from Lake Oswego, Oregon.
Eileen Spillman doesn’t take away her 14-year-old daughter’s phone as a punishment, but she sets limits when the phone is causing a problem—like when her daughter is late to school because she was on social media. “I like the Verizon Smart Family app because it lets me get a picture of when and how she’s using her phone without having to totally invade her privacy,” Spillman says. “I can also remotely turn her phone off if I think she needs some limits.”
Likewise, Laura McCollough, who has three daughters, will often delete social media or game apps from the phone as discipline but still let them have the phone for other purposes.
3. If you must take a phone away, offer alternatives.
“In today’s world, the phone often provides a primary source of access to both social support and necessary data for school and extracurricular activities,” Dodgen-Magee says. “Simply taking a phone away from your teenager would be like taking away the support of a bridge with nothing in its place.”
So, you might disable the social media or texting function if your teen needs to use the phone for homework. Or allow it when your teen is out and might need to reach you, but take it away at home, suggests clinical psychologist Stephanie Newman.
“If they’re part of a group study chat, you can’t allow them to fail or let down the team,” says Newman. “These days, you really have to implement this type of punishment thoughtfully.”
4. Take away the phone at night.
The answer to this question—should parents take away cell phones at night?— is much more definitive, say the experts. Yes, unless you are absolutely sure your teenager is able to put the phone away (and not pick it up) at bedtime.
That’s because screens and sleep do not mix. The light emitted by the typical screen inhibits the production of melatonin in our brains. Melatonin is the chemical that allows us to fall and stay asleep. In other words, a screen is like a wake up call for our brains. In fact, the research shows that teenagers (and adults) who use screens at night are getting up to an hour less sleep per night.
Ask your teenager to stash his or her phone out of the bedroom at night (say, after 10 p.m. or 11 p.m. depending on your teenager’s typical bedtime). Consider doing the same. You may find you all sleep better.