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iPunishment: Go to your room... and no technology!

Oct. 19, 2012 at 6:36 AM ET

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“Go to your room!”

Short but not always sweet, it's a phrase parents have been shouting for as long as sisters have smacked brothers (and vice versa). In these digital days, though, that four-word command isn’t quite as simple as it used to be.

With more TVs in kids’ bedrooms, not to mention gaming systems, computers and portable devices small enough to slip into a pocket, parents are finding themselves forced to tack on a caveat: “Go to your room -- and unplug!”

“It’s a new dilemma for parents,” says child psychologist Paul Donahue of Scarsdale, N.Y., who favors keeping electronics out of the bedrooms of kids 12 and under.

When girls and boys were banished to their rooms in the days before Wi-Fi and webcams, they read or played with Legos, he says.

“There wasn’t too much else in there," says Donahue, author of Parenting Without Fear: Letting Go of Worry and Focusing on What Really Matters. "Now, a lot of kids feel like their room is an entertainment center with all sorts of options electronically.”

Donahue says kids can't truly reflect on why they talked back if they’re glued to a game of Ant Smasher. Thus, the addendum.

“The message is still the same, but it’s a little bit of saying, ‘You can’t just take escapist electronics with you,’ because that’s going to prevent kids from thinking about why they were sent there in the first place,” he says.

Jill Etesse bans all digital distractions when she sends her daughters, ages 5 and 10, upstairs.

“When they go to their room, it’s ‘Drop your devices’ and they go up to sit and think about whatever reason they’re there for,” says Etesse, of Washington, D.C.

The separation is painful for her device-loving daughters. Etesse is the founder of SmartyShortz, which develops children’s apps. Her girls -- built-in beta testers -- are allotted an hour a day to use their devices.

“My kids absolutely cannot stand being sent to their room,” Etesse says. “I would imagine it’s because of technology.”

Although it might be something more than just a hankering to text or play games.

“Maybe they’re so constantly stimulated that being away from family and devices is the ultimate punishment because it’s so much isolation," she says.

Etesse already forbids her daughters from using technology in their rooms and was furious when she discovered a year and a half ago that her older daughter seemed to be sneaking her iPhone with her whenever she was sent to her room.

That was a turning point that led to the “drop the devices” policy. Etesse wants her daughters to look inward, not down at a glowing screen.

“With devices, they are so focused and engaged that they can't even converse sometimes, [much] less ‘think deeply’ or concentrate on the reason they were sent to their rooms,” she says. “Sometimes we call it going to your room to ‘reboot’ ... [But] they cannot do this with a distraction like a tablet or phone.”

Looking back, Etesse, 40, doesn’t remember being sent to her room as being so bad. It was the only time she was allowed to shut her door, and she enjoyed quiet time away from her sister.

“My mom had to come up and get me,” she says, whereas her girls sometimes ask to come out -- which earns them five more minutes in their rooms.

The bedroom, Donahue says, is a place where younger kids and ‘tweens can be sent for five to 15 minutes to calm down and think about their behavior before rejoining the family. While it shouldn’t be an electronic free-for-all, he says, kids don’t just need to sit in a corner, either.

“If they read or play Legos, they could still be engaged in thought about what’s gone on,” Donahue says “If they’re just switching gears into video games or TV, it’s not really allowing kids to have that space to think about what just happened.”

Also, the idea of even having to tell kids not to use electronics when they go to their rooms raises the question of kids’ overall relationship with technology, he says, especially when those devices live in the bedroom.

Have kids come to believe it’s their right to use them whenever they want, or do they still view using them as a privilege?

“It’s very hard to say those are not your entitlements, because if they’re parked in their room like everything else, they’re going to seem like what the kid naturally has access to,” says Donahue.

“Parents have to work very hard in the younger ages so that it doesn’t become an entitlement for kids, so they don’t feel like they have unlimited access,” he says. “It’s a necessity to set limits.”

Have you found yourself telling your kids to “Drop the iPod and go upstairs?” Share your experience in the comments.

Lisa A. Flam is a news and lifestyles writer in New York who, whoops, has instructed her son to go to his room and stare at the wall.

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