by Leslie Morgan Steiner
I have a 13 year old son. His priorities in life are (in this order)
1. 24/7 Communication with Friends
I am constantly flummoxed by the technological gadgets and innovations at his fingertips that seduce him away from schoolwork, eating regular meals, feeding the dog, and spending time with his loving family. He texts at movie theaters. He Skypes with friends up the block – and in Brazil. He iChats with his best friend every evening even though he spends eight hours a day with her at school. As I write this, he is watching the US Open with his dad – while iChatting on his computer and texting on his cell. His phone is always within two feet of his hands, even at the dinner table and in bed when he is asleep. I have seen him cry when he couldn’t find his cell phone. He would rather give up television and dessert than shut down his laptop.
My 13-year-old son is, for better or worse, a technology addict.
Short of taking a sledge hammer to his cell and laptop, it’s a constant struggle to monitor or control his technology usage. I’m completely out of my depth. He is my household’s tech support department, managing the televisions, computers and cell phones, which makes it hard for me to police him.
And truly I don’t want to. I get it – technology is his friend, helping him master much of his school and peer universe now, and sure to help him in the future in college and at work. He relies on technology to foster strong, deep ties to his peers, which every child development expert believes is normal and healthy. And hey, I was the same way at 13, minus the technology. My two best friends from ninth grade are still my two best friends 30 years later, so I’m in no position to argue.
But as a parent it’s my job to set limits. Translation: uggh.
In my day, parents set limits and punished kids for poor grades or bad behavior by using the following tools: taking away phone privileges (easy because the one phone in our house was plugged into the living room wall), taking away car privileges (easy again because we had one car and one set of car keys), and the tried-and-true mother of all punishments: GROUNDING. It was a simpler time.
But in truth, all of these punishments had their drawbacks, and grounding in particular took enormous effort to enforce. Parents had to be home to make sure the groundee stayed home. Their punishment was worse than the kid getting punished: constant contact with an angry, resentful teenager. For days, weeks, months at a time. From a parent’s perspective, grounding a kid was worse than mono.
Thank goodness things have changed. Turns out there is an upside to all this technology my son adores. It’s called Digital Grounding. And it’s easy.
The Washington Post recently ran a front-page dissection on digital grounding: "A new-age twist on the age-old parenting technique of grounding ." The Pew Internet & American Life Project reports that 62 percent of parents have taken away a cellphone as punishment. One mom reported changing her son’s Facebook password as a grounding tool. “You’re not entitled to Facebook,” she told him. “You’re not entitled to a cellphone. You need to find a way to make these things fit into your life – not become your life.”
My family has implemented Technological Grounding in a proactive fashion. Even though we were among the first to get our son a cell phone (at age nine), in our family you need to be sixteen to have a Facebook page, use Google Buzz or other other mass communication tools. Call me old-fashioned, but I find safety in one-on-one communication vs. sharing intimate details of your life with hundreds of “friends.” I’ve seen too many downsides to digital networks deployed en masse – viral party invitations resulting in hundreds of teenagers showing up uninvited, vicious criticisms of peers, absolutely lovely, steadfast 7th and 8th grade girls posting way too sexy pictures of themselves for the world to view in perpetuity. My son thinks I’m draconian, but on this I’m hardcore. I’m sure he could outwit me and set up a Facebook page without my knowing it, but for now, I trust him.
Last night, he had a sleepover with two friends. Midnight is the bedtime deadline for sleepovers in our house. When I checked on the boys in my son’s darkened room as the clock struck twelve, here’s what I found: three thirteen year olds, three laptops, three cellphones, and one iPod, all blinking in the night. Stepping across the sleeping bags, I collected the gadgets among of howls of “we need them!” and “I can’t sleep without my iPod.”
Dragging the cords, I shared my hard won 21st century parental wisdom: “You cannot sleep without being unplugged.” Then I sat outside the door like a camp counselor, waiting for them to wind down and fall asleep, the same vigil my mother used to hold when I had sleepovers as a teenagers. Some techniques never change.