Gray Kimbrough, a labor and time use researcher at American University, notes that part of the increase in Americans’ screen time is a function of the economic landscape. “There’s that jump coinciding with the Great Recession, because non-employed people tend to watch more TV. Since then, it’s been pretty steady (at the population average level).”
He and other researchers have found that shifts in Americans’ leisure time habits are largely a function of what’s happening with senior citizens. “Old people have been spending more and more time watching TV/movies/streaming video, while for those under around 40 it’s held steady or fallen (on average).”
Since 2003, the average American man older than 65 has added about an hour of TV watching to his daily schedule, pushing the national daily average to just over five hours. Older women report a smaller increase in screen time, less than half an hour, during the same period. The net effect is that the TV gap in this age group has doubled, with men now spending about an hour longer in front of the TV than women.
A recent analysis by the Pew Research Center found that much of the time seniors now spend watching TV used to be dedicated to reading and socializing with others. One driving factor in the shift is technology: From 2000 to 2018, the share of adults older than 65 who use the Internet climbed from 14 percent to 73 percent. Kimbrough notes that this Time Use Survey category includes such activities as watching programs and DVDs on a television or computer, as well as YouTube videos.
Much of the public conversation around technology’s effect on American life is focused on the young, with questions about whether screen time is making kids and young adults anti-social, less employable, obese, sadder, dumber.
The Time Use Survey data, however, suggests some of this concern may be misplaced. Among Americans age 15 to 24, for instance, the data show an increase in gaming time but negligible changes in computer or TV time.
Among seniors, meanwhile, the rise in screen time means they may be putting themselves at increased risk of cognitive decline, unhappiness and death, among other things. These risks may be heightened further since the added screen time is coming at the expense of reading — an activity known to confer many mental health benefits. The share of seniors reading for pleasure on any given day has dropped dramatically, from 53 percent in 2003 to 37 percent in 2018.
So while society frets about teens growing “horns” on their heads from too much phone use, in the end it may be older Americans who are most adversely affected by the changes in technology.