What are we choosing not to spend time on to make room for the hours we all spend each week on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and the like? While numerous articles have worried that such screen time might be coming at the expense of face-to-face socializing, a new paper from the National Bureau of Economic Research suggests, happily, that that is a relatively small part of the tradeoff. But managers won’t find much comfort in the study’s conclusions. More than anything else, the leisure time we spend online comes at the expense of work.
In the paper, Scott Wallsten of the Technology Policy Institute attempts to measure the offline activities that are crowded out by our online recreation throughout the day, using data from The American Time Use Survey, a government survey that, since 2003, has been asking U.S. citizens how they spend their time. While there are several caveats to the research, it provides a quantitative view of what we do less of to make time for leisure activities online. For every additional minute the average American spends online recreationally, they spend roughly 16 fewer seconds working, nine fewer seconds watching TV, and seven fewer seconds sleeping.
Now for some caveats. In the time use survey, not all common online activities are collected in a single category, and some of the most common ones, including email, online gaming, and videos, are grouped with similar offline activities. (So, for instance, someone watching Netflix counts as “Watching TV and video” and someone playing video games counts in a broader games category.) The category of “computer leisure time,” which Wallsten uses to approximate online leisure time, mostly includes newer online activities that didn’t exist when the survey was created in 2003, including, notably, social media use.
In addition, the study deals with multitasking by asking respondents about the “primary” activity they were involved in at any moment in time, which one could argue fails to capture the use of computers and tablets alongside other offline activities.
Finally, time spent online and the offline activities it replaces vary significantly based on age, income, and other demographics. Not surprisingly, younger people spend more recreational time online, accounting for a higher percentage of their overall leisure time.
Other differences include the fact that women don’t let online leisure time crowd out household activities, whereas men spend eight seconds less on them for every extra minute online. And, somewhat disturbingly, 15- to 19-year-olds spend 20 fewer seconds on educational activities for every extra minute online.
While interesting, none of this will comfort managers concerned about lost productivity as employees spend more time online.
“If you imagine the tradeoff between watching Netflix and watching standard cable TV, that represents a huge fight within the video industry but it still might not affect the size of the economy,” said Wallsten. “But if you’re talking about it coming out of work time, then that could be a significant negative effect.”
And yet he cautions that such concern might be overstated, adding that “the numbers are still small enough that it’s conceivable it has no net negative effect on productivity.”
Indeed, other studies have suggested that workers can be be more productive when given regular breaks to browse the web. Moreover, for some workers at least, time spent on social media can improve work-related knowledge and skills.
If anything, managers should worry about that smaller chunk of sleep that gets crowded out by time spent online. The paper notes that those who can’t sleep might be spending more time online rather than time online causing people to sleep less. But if our online activities are in fact taking time away from sleep, that would mean a real impact on productivity.
– by Walter Frick
Thu 24 Oct 13