Like many kids her age, 12-year-old Olivia Perez is in love with online games. She plays her two favorites, Minecraft and National Geographic's Animal Jam, with abandon, spending a total of eight to ten hours online every day, according to her mother, Tanya.
The time online — split between an iPhone, iPad, and computer — is so compelling, Tanya uses it as a carrot to reward good behavior. But when Olivia (whose name we changed at Tanya's request) acts up, Tanya takes her online time away, and brings in the stick: television.
"She doesn't want to watch TV; she wants to be online," Tanya said in an interview with BuzzFeed News. Taking away Olivia's online time leaves her in front of the television, effectively turning it into a punishment. "I can't believe I'm in this position where I'm like, 'Watch TV!'" Tanya said.
If you think Tanya's situation is an outlier, guess again. In a new study of 800 parents conducted by market research company Miner & Co. Studio, almost half the parents surveyed said they punished their kids by taking away their tablets and smartphones, leaving them in front of the TV, their last remaining screen.
"It's a form of time-out," said Robert Miner, president of Miner & Co, who explained that taking away all screens typically isn't worth the meltdown it can incite, so forcing kids to watch TV instead of using mobile devices is seen as a more agreeable form of discipline. "No screen time would probably be the digital equivalent of being grounded," Miner said.
"The big punishment in our house is actually being forced to watch TV," one father in the study said in a video released by Miner & Co. Some children of the polled parents were asked in the video to choose between an iPad and dessert; they all choose the iPad — every single one.
When Tanya Perez punishes her daughter with television, the kid rolls her eyes, sighs, puts up with the show, and heads back to her device the minute it ends. "As soon as the end credits roll, we're done, and she's back online," Tanya said. "You hear the name National Geographic, and it's like, 'Oh it's education somehow,'" Tanya said, referring to one game. "But it's not, it's the biggest con and they've got my daughter hooked."
Tanya said Olivia's time online has changed her: "She was so vital before she got online. It saddens me and I would love to see it turn around again."
The Miner & Co. study comes amid a week of discussion about the effects of mobile devices on kids. In a Monday New York Times story, author Jane Brody blamed the devices for her grandchildren's disinterest in family time. "When the family dines out, the boys use their devices before the meal arrives and as soon as they finish eating," she wrote.
Citing that story, The Awl's John Herrman argued that maybe the rise of connected mobile devices isn't bad when you consider the kids' perspective. "The moments of social captivity that gave parents power, or that gave grandparents precious access, are now compromised," he wrote. "The grandkids can do the things they really want to be doing whenever they want, even while they're sitting five feet away from grandma, alone, in a moving soundproof pod."
Over the past few years, we've seen our connection with the internet go from one established by sporadically sitting down in front of a computer, to one that is nearly ever-present. The shift means we now posses a world in our pockets — or on our wrists — that can be more interesting than the people in front of us.
For many adults, the new reality has damaged interpersonal interactions, turning family dinners and business meetings into collaborative phone checking punctured by fleeting attempts at communication. For kids who have known nothing else, it's difficult to say what the long-term effect will be, which is what makes it so scary and debate-inducing.
For now though, it's driving parents nuts. "I never anticipated having to deal with this much online presence in our lives," said Tanya Perez. "How does it stop?"