TV watching crushes all other leisure activities

Five Thirty Eight looks at the 2014 American Time Use Survey and finds TV still rules supreme:

Americans still spend more time watching TV than all other leisure activities combined:

Americans average 5.3 hours of leisure time per day (4.8 hours on weekdays and 6.5 hours on weekends and holidays) and over half that is spent in front of the television. Socializing and communicating is the next most popular activity and is the only one to nearly double on weekends (35 minutes on weekdays, 61 minutes on weekends).


And an interesting parenting finding:

From 2010 to 2014, parents had deliberate conversations with their children for, on average, only 3 minutes a day, and they read to their kids for 2.4 minutes per day (about one picture book’s worth). Conversation with children helps spur language development, and several states run programs for low-income families, who may have less time at home, to help them engage their children and close the word gap.

That television still must provide something that other leisure activities just can’t compete with. Perhaps it is the compelling stories – something must be okay on those hundreds of channels. Perhaps it is just the plethora of options in HD on a big screen (improved TV technology goes a long ways, particularly for live events). Or maybe it is that TV doesn’t require much energy while many of the other leisure activities require more personal investment. For those who see this as a sign of civilization’s decline, at least Americans are persistent in their love for TV…

At 8 PM, 1/3 of Americans watching TV

An hour by hour breakdown from the American Time Use Survey shows TV watching peaks at 8 PM:

More than a third of Americans will watch TV between 8 and 9pm today, while only 8 per cent of the country will spend the same hour doing household chores, and 7 per cent of the country is still at work.

That is according to an hourly breakdown of the federal government’s American Time Use Survey produced by e-commerce company Retale…

It shows that the average American still works between the hours of 8am to 5pm from Monday to Friday, and spends his or her evening doing household chores or watching TV.

However, the statistics show that Americans are working an average of ten minutes less per day than in 2003, and spend more time sleeping.

Interesting interactive charts provided by Retale. At least Americans can be united by their TV watching each night.

It strikes me that data like this could prompt a discussion of whether Americans share daily common experiences. How we use our time gives some indications of life priorities though there is a good amount of variation – what are those other 2/3 thirds of people doing at 8 PM or what are all these people watching? Does the data suggest there are more common American time uses that unite us or are there so many significant demographic differences that we couldn’t make such a statement?

Social inertia in time use between the 1960s and today

A sociologist who has examined recent time use surveys suggests not much has changed since the 1960s:

John Robinson, a sociology professor from the University of Maryland whose research has focused heavily on Americans’ time use, said the most striking aspect of the latest American Time Use Survey is how closely it resembles similar information from before the 2008 recession — and from as early as the 1960s when time-use surveys first came into being.

The annual Bureau of Labor Statistics publication documents how Americans spend their time. In 2012, employed people worked for about 7.7 hours each day, spent two hours on household chores and took between five and six hours on leisure activities, with close to three of those hours spent plopped in front of the television…

Although today’s Americans spend their time similarly to their counterparts in the decade of discontent, Mr. Robinson noted some important changes in the by-the-minute breakdown. Men and women spend much more equal amounts of time at work, on housework and on leisure activities than they did in the 1960s.

Time spent watching TV has inched upward with every passing year, and although Mr. Robinson expected Internet use to slowly eat into TV time, the Web has yet to take up a large chunk of Americans’ time. The latest survey found men and women both spend less than 30 minutes of leisure time per workday on the computer.

Regardless, both Internet and TV use fall into the same category of activity: sedentary behavior.

This sounds like a good example of persistent social patterns. Without any official guidelines or norms about how people should spend their time, people are living fairly similarly to how they did in the 1960s. If daily life hasn’t changed much, perhaps it is more important to ask people’s perceptions about their time use. Do they feel better today about how they spend their days compared to fifty years ago? These perceptions are shaped by a number of factors, including generational changes where the younger adults of the 1960s are now the older adults of today.

The easier target for analysis: did people in the past expect that the people of the future would spend their time watching TV? I doubt it. At the same time, it suggests television has some staying power as a form of entertainment and information.

How jobless Americans are spending their time

Some new research suggests that unemployed Americans are doing a variety of things:

One study last year found that much of the extra time gets spent sleeping and watching TV–leading to news reports that the jobless “frittered away” their time. Another analysis–this one released in January and co-written by Princeton economist Alan Krueger, who was announced Monday as the White House’s pick to serve as the chief economic adviser to President Obama–pointed in the same direction. It found that people tend to devote fewer hours to job searches the longer they’ve been unemployed, and that sleep–especially “sleep in the morning hours”–increases as joblessness goes on. Together, the studies appeared to create a picture of the unemployed as lazy and unproductive.But a sophisticated new analysis (pdf) complicates that picture. In a paper written for the National Bureau of Economic Research, Mark A. Aguiar, Erik Hurst, and Loukas Karabarbounis, using data from the American Time Use Survey, found that the jobless do spend about 30 percent of their extra time–the time they would otherwise have spent working–sleeping or watching TV, and another 20 percent on other leisure activities. But around 35 percent is spent doing unpaid but nonetheless important work, like child-care and housework. And other investments–things like education, health-care, and volunteer work –account for another 10 percent.

The notion advanced by some that jobless benefits are being used to support a life of leisure is, at best, simplistic.

But as Nancy Folbre, an economics professor at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, notes, there’s a limit to how much useful unpaid work the jobless can do. “They lack the capital, land, tools and skills needed to flexibly shift from wage employment to production for their own use.,” she writes. “Even when they can make a partial shift, their productivity is likely to be lower in unpaid work than paid work.”

I’m a little surprised by the quote from an economist at the end: unpaid work still needs to be done by someone whether they currently have the skills for it or not. Perhaps she is referring to longer-term issues: do the unemployed go back to work (perhaps by changing fields or getting educated in new areas) or do they adjust to a life of unpaid work? In the meantime, there is a transition that has to be made. But I can imagine that some people would see this quote and wonder what this means for people who have always done unpaid work, particularly mothers.

Another way to interpret the earlier study that the unemployed enjoy a life of leisure is that this is due to feelings of restlessness and perhaps even depression.

In general, I find time use studies to be quite interesting. When you ask people general questions about how they spend their time, like how long they spend at work, the numbers can be quite inflated. The better studies require logs or diaries and ask questions about recent time periods where memories will not be as distorted. Here is how the American Time Use Study describes some of its methodology (starting at page 11 of this document):

The ATUS sample is randomized by day, with 50 percent of the sample reporting about
weekdays, Monday through Friday, and 50 percent reporting about Saturday and
Sunday. Designated persons must report about their activities on their designated day,
without any substitution of days…

The ATUS interview is a combination of structured questions and conversational
interviewing. It consists of four major topics: the household roster, the time diary, the
summary questions, and a section related to information collected in the eighth CPS
interview. The portion of the interview relating to the CPS is divided into four sections:
labor force status, looking for work, industry and occupation, and earnings and school
enrollment. These questions are used to update or confirm time-sensitive CPS data or
to fill in missing CPS data. Each section is described below in more detail…

For all parts of the interview except the collection of the time-use diary data (in
section 4, above), interviewers read scripted text on the CATI screen and enter the
reported responses.

For the time-use diary, the interviewer uses conversational interviewing rather than
asking scripted questions. This is a more flexible interviewing technique designed to
allow the respondent to report on his or her activities comfortably and accurately. This
technique also allows interviewers to use methods to guide respondents through memory lapses, to probe in a nonleading way for the level of detail required to code activities, and to redirect respondents who are providing unnecessary information. As each activity is reported, the interviewer records the verbatim responses on a new activity line. The interviewers are trained to ensure that the respondent reports
activities (and activity durations) actually done on the previous (diary) day, not
activities done on a “usual” day. Interviewers do this by placing continual emphasis on
the word “yesterday” throughout the interview.

This study relies on both a diary and asking questions about yesterday.