How To Approach Punishing Your Teen For a Digital Slip-Up

From catching your teen sexting, to finding out that they violated your phone contract, digital slip-ups are never fun to deal with. It is not surprising that teens and parents often experience power struggles over digital rules and privileges. Teens are often given such high responsibility with technology at such young ages, that it is natural that there are going to be some problems. Digital rule-breaking is still a relatively new avenue of parenting that requires specific attention and action. 

Make the most out of these unpleasant situations by following these step-by-step guidelines. These guidelines provide parents with both a big picture and a detailed perspective on how to go about reacting to a digital slip-up. These tips are written by Toni Birdsong and were originally featured in McAfee's Blog Central article What Should the Consequences be for a Digital Slip-up

Here are some steps to take when reacting to a teen digital slip-up:

    • Be calm. If possible, wait a day or two until you can trust yourself not to let anger control the conversation. Vent to a spouse or friend but don’t unleash on your child unless you want a brick wall in response.

    • Do the harder thing. This is my personal mom mantra. It’s easy to punish, it’s harder to sit down and have a tough conversation. So, in this case, get your thoughts together and calmly have the bigger conversation that—depending on your family dynamic and value system—will vary from one household to the next.

    • Be united. Get on the same discipline page with the second parent or guardian. If you present a united, consistent, immovable front, your child will understand expectations and consequences clearly.

    • Be careful not to shame. The behavior does not define the child. In talking, stay focused on the behavior or action without making general, personal judgments.

    • Be clear on the “why.” Explain the risks associated with the behavior and why it’s not allowed. If the topic is sexting then explain the privacy risk of trusting another person as well as the legal risks of possessing or sending sexual photos.

    • Listen. It’s hard to fully listen to a child who just got caught doing something you consider dangerous and just about any reason they give will be reckless to you. However, when a child feels heard and understood, dialogue and relationship grows and that is the bigger parenting goal.

    • Empathize. Empathy is difficult when emotion tells you to erupt with a lecture that begins with, “when I was growing up . . .” But stop. This conversation is no longer a fair comparison. Thanks to the Internet the gap between your youth and his youth is as large as the Grand Canyon. So try to put yourself your child’s shoes and listen. Then really try to empathize with the pressures of the digital culture teens face daily.

    • Restrict devices. Depending on the situation, the consequence will vary. Trust your instincts to make the punishment fit the crime. A few years ago, we had to take our son’s phone for a full month. It was hard on us all but it worked. He learned the privilege and responsible use of technology.

    • Be consistent. If you say three weeks without a phone, keep to that “prison term” as hard as it may be for you and your family’s digital lifestyle. If you stick to the consequence, you are likely to curb or stop the behavior and send the message that the rule will be enforced going forward.

    • Write an essay. It sounds old school but essay writing in this world of impulse clicking has worked in our house. Parenting is all about teachable moments, so use this opportunity to educate. Have your child write a paper on the dangers of the behavior. Be it bullying, sexting, suggestive texting, racism, profanity, or gossip—there are huge lessons to be learned through researching and writing. Remember many tweens and teens are simply naïve to the power of the technology they hold and they simply don’t know what they don’t know.

    • Public tough love. I’m not a fan of this approach but some parents believe in disciplining their kids publicly to teach them to respect the power and privilege of technology. One mom, it’s reported, made her daughter post a photo of herself on Facebook holding a sign that read: “I am no longer allowed on FB or my phone. Please ask why. My mom says I have to answer everyone that asks.” And who could forget the dad who shot up his daughter’s laptop when she posted negative things about her parents online? Most of these stories make the rounds and have parents initially applauding the bravery (and creativity) of these parents but some parents argue that this approach teaches a child that mistakes online warrant public humiliation. Every situation and every punishment is different and, again, perhaps their child’s latest online antic was the tipping point for these tough love parents.

As with all rights of passages, teens need to initially earn the privilege to use technology by following rules laid out by parents. Before providing teens and tweens with technology, it will be beneficial for you and your child to make the consequences of poor digital behaviors clear. You may want to discuss how you'll go about punishing them in the future if they make a digital slip-up (not answering a parent's call all night may equal one week without a phone, or texting while driving may mean that they'll be grounded for two weeks).

Toni's step highlighting the need for parents to cease shaming teens is particularly important. Although digital slip-ups can have more of a ripple of effects than some real-life mistakes, parents must treat the action for what it is: a mistake. Take these instances as opportunities to explain why these behaviors are wrong. Parents can view these digital slip-ups as learning experiences on their digital parenting journey.    

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