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    What Did You Used to Do with All the Time You're Now Spending Online?

    Written by

    Ben Richmond

    Contributing Editor

    via Wikimedia Commons

    Experts say that Netflix and HBO are bound to one day both become the same thing, but for now, one is on cable and the other is online, contrasted but difficult to compare. Thing is, they are already competing for the same thing—your free time. And while it’s tricky to quantify—and far from uniform—the internet is slowing advancing and swallowing all of your leisure. 

    Scott Wallsten, the Vice President for Research at the Technology Policy Institute, just published a paper on how Americans spend their average of roughly five hours of daily leisure time.

    Wallsten found that not everyone gets home from working on a computer all day and starts dicking around on one for fun. There are broad swaths of the population who aren’t using the computer during their free time at all, and this mildly skews the degree to which computers are taking it all over. 

    The “average” American is supposed to be spending 13 minutes per day using the computer for leisure—that is, not counting gaming, email or watching videos, which the survey Wallsten used counted elsewhere. If you exclude people who never spend any leisure time online, however, and only look at the growing number of people who reported spending any leisure time online, the average leaps to 100 minutes a day—almost one-third of their total daily leisure time.

    As you might expect, the amount of leisure time spent online decreases with age—15-17 year olds report spending the most time online, followed by 18-24 year olds, while everyone else spends about the same. As people retire and have more time for leisure, those few minutes online count for a smaller and smaller percentage of their total leisure time.

    But even if it seems like a small slice of the pie, the amount of time we’re spending online for leisure is growing, and at the expense of how we used to spend our leisure time, mostly watching TV, but also meat-space socializing (which has just been plummeting for the last decade), and the all-important doing nothing. From Wallsten: 

    Each minute of online leisure time is correlated with 0.29 fewer minutes on all other types of leisure, with about half of that coming from time spent watching TV and video, 0.05 minutes from (offline) socializing, 0.04 minutes from relaxing and thinking, and the balance from time spent at parties, attending cultural events, and listening to the radio.

    Each minute of online leisure is also correlated with 0.27 fewer minutes working, 0.12 fewer minutes sleeping, 0.10 fewer minutes in travel time, 0.07 fewer minutes in household activities, and 0.06 fewer minutes in educational activities.

    Even though the segment of time most affected is the biggest—watching TV—Wallsten also points out that there's a visible social shift. "Other offline leisure activities that involve interacting with other people are crowded out by online leisure: attending parties and attending cultural events and going to museums are all negatively correlated with online leisure," he writes. "In short, these results based on ATUS data suggest that a cost of online activity is less time spent with other people."

    Of course, the most popular activity for online leisure is social networking, so worries that we're all becoming hermits should be... tempered, I guess.

    The nebulous nature of the internet is exactly what complicates quantifying if what happens online comes at the expense of something else, because "being online" is terribly descriptive of what you're doing. Wallsten points out that, while it seems like the amount of time we spend working on our hobbies is dropping, a cursory glance of Youtube or a deeper look at Reddit reveals that the internet is actually facilitating more hobbying.

    Getting back to the movie example, HBO would do better becoming more like Netflix, not the other way around. The trends bode well for the internet, and are already showing results—Netflix just reported having more paid subscribers than HBO. Business is booming for leisure.

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