What Should the Consequences Be for a Teens’ Digital Slip-Up?

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Usually the first question I get from panicked parents who just found something shocking on their child’s phone is, “what should the consequence be?” It’s also not unusual for them to want to take every piece of technology their child owns and throw it in an industrial-sized meat grinder.

But let’s hang on a minute and just breathe.

I too have been there. I’ve held my teen’s phone in my shaking hands with my heart racing and tears hitting my eyes faster than the air could hit my lungs and mumbled something to the affect of “how could this happen . . . my kid is a good kid.”

Which is where we must begin.

Your kid is still a great kid. If you discovered some racy photos or texts, or received a call from the school about digital misconduct involving your child, it doesn’t cancel out the million or so things that make your child the wonderful, decent human being he is. And, his action does not void the bounty of good parenting you’ve poured into him.

That said, we can move on.

I view these moments—as painful as they are—as gifts that make me a wiser parent and alert me that I need to recalibrate my parenting truth. I’d rather be realistic about my child than hold the overconfident (and dangerous) picture that he (or she) is somehow “better than” or “above” making human mistakes.

These moments are rites of passage for parents as well as for kids. Getting “caught” reminds our child that he is subject to authority and loved enough to be disciplined. And “catching” a child reminds we parents that our child is growing up and we need to grow up our parenting skills in step.

Yes, it’s beyond humbling to be abruptly reminded that our once bright-eyed, compliant toddler is growing up (and away from us) and is vulnerable to the same temptations as anyone else. The upside is that experts agree: mistakes create teachable moments that help kids become resilient, wise, discerning adults. By facing the consequences of digital slipups has the potential to establish critical values and build a child’s character.

I don’t think it’s ever wise to tell another parent how to discipline a child. Every family is vastly different. But in the Internet safety arena, I can offer some discipline “suggestions” that might help.

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• 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 new technology emerges our ninja parenting skills will be challenged to even higher levels. So whatever discipline route you choose, just remember, you are not alone. Every parent today is called to find that ever-elusive balance between discipline and grace in keeping kids safe online.

What consequences have you tried in your home? Please share your wisdom!

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Toni Birdsong is a Family Safety Evangelist to McAfee. You can find her on Twitter @SafeEyes

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