The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Here’s how the Internet hurts your sleep schedule, productivity and personal life

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If you’ve ever suspected the Internet is taking over your offline life, an economist has some disheartening news for you: It is.

Scott Wallsten, a senior researcher at the Tech Policy Institute, parsed through the American Time Use Survey and analyzed the Internet’s “crowding-out” effect — what things we do less of so we can spend more time online. His findings, released this month in a working paper for the National Bureau of Economic Research, were pretty dramatic. For every minute people spend on “online leisure time” — i.e., not working or checking e-mail — they also spend significantly less time on other common activities.

Multiplying that out, it means that for every 10 minutes people fool around online, they spend:

  • 2.9 minutes less on all other types of leisure
  • 2.7 fewer minutes working (or a more dramatic 3.75 minutes, for people in their 30s)
  • 1.2 fewer minutes on personal care, including sleep
  • 1 less minute travelling
  • 42 fewer seconds on household activities
  • 36 fewer seconds on educational activities

When you break out just the leisure category, people spend:

  • 32.4 fewer seconds on offline socializing
  • 24 fewer seconds of relaxing and thinking
  • 9.6 fewer seconds at parties
  • 6 fewer seconds at cultural events/institutions

If this looks a bit like Jonathan Franzen’s worst nightmare, that’s because it is. A few seconds of “crowded out” work here and there doesn’t seem too damming. But that’s only per 10 minutes of Internet leisure. The average person who uses the Internet for fun — a minority still, but a growing one — spends roughly 100 minutes a day on it. So that population of serious, largely young Internet-users, loses 27 minutes of work, 29 minutes of leisure and 12 minutes of sleep every day.

Economists call this the “opportunity cost” of Internet leisure time, and it’s something a lot of people are really interested in quantifying. That’s because it has big impacts on everything from the economy (where Internet shenanigans supposedly cost business $134 billion a year) to education (where, per Wallsten, high-school aged kids spend almost three fewer minutes on schoolwork for every 10 minutes online).

Unfortunately, as Wallsten himself notes in his paper, slapping a number on the opportunity cost of Internet leisure isn’t quite as easy as logging the hours people spend online. The American Time Use Survey doesn’t account for things like multitasking, for instance — so who knows how it would categorize what I'm doing right now, with a blog post in one browser and Tweetdeck open in another. It also doesn’t distinguish between things like on- and offline TV-watching, or on- and offline phone calls.

Aside from the issue of the ATUS, there’s also the sticky matter of extrapolating the cost of “lost” minutes, which Wallsten leaves to future researchers. Just because people spend less time on work doesn’t mean they're working less, for instance — they could just be more efficient. (Some research actually suggests the occasional YouTube or Facebook break is good for productivity.) And while Wallsten concludes, rather forebodingly, that “a cost of online activity is less time spent with other people,” that fails to account for the zillion social connections that people form, and nurture, online.

Bottom line? The Internet is quickly changing the way we allocate our time, but there’s no call to panic yet. You might want to stop reading this thing on the Internet and get back to work, though.