This is part 3 in a series on How Americans Live.

The US Labor Department released the 2011 Time Use Survey on June 22.

A few facts should raise questions:

In 2011, each day, at the highest aggregated level, on average, an American spends:

  • 2.75 hours watching TV
  • 43 minutes buying goods and services¬†
  • 18 minutes exercising, playing sports, and recreating
  • 10 minutes on telephone calls, mail, and email
  • 7 minutes on leisure computer use (excluding games)

2.75 hours watching TV, 7 minutes computer use

That 2.75 hour watching TV figure ought to stick out like a craw for many analysts, because, by some estimates, 19.25 hours a week is a really low figure. The same goes for 7 minutes of leisure computer use (excluding games). Indeed, Forrester publicly stated in 2010 that TV watching and Internet use are roughly equal at 13 hours a week.

The devil is in the details

The ATUS definition and coding guide are very specific*.

If the respondent was doing many things at the same time, they’re asked what they were primarily doing, (with the exception of simultaneously taking care of a child). Simultaneous activities that are secondary are not systematically recorded.

“Using the computer” is coded as what the respondents primary activity. If they were using the computer to look for a job, it would be coded as looking for a job. If they were using the computer to pay bills, it would be coded as household activity/financial management. If they were shopping online, it would be coded as buying goods and services. Playing games on the computer (including Internet games) is coded into the generic ‘playing games’ code, which includes card and board games. One notable exception is if the respondent said they were ‘chatting on the Internet’, which would be coded as ‘computer use for leisure’. If the respondent wouldn’t state what they were doing on the computer, then it would be coded as ‘computer use for leisure’. (Editorial deleted).

The goal is to record the intent of the activity, the medium is purely secondary.

This effectively hides computer and Internet use in the aggregate results of the ATUS survey.

Forrester, Nielsen

Forrester’s definition of Internet use includes using it at work, as well as social and video gaming. As a result, and Forrester is careful to say this repeatedly, the Internet isn’t just for leisure use.

Nielsen states that TV usage includes leaving the TV on. In other words, the definition of watching TV extends to secondary activities.

Their understanding how American live is measured differently, generating alternative figures.

TV and Internet

The ATUS survey was launched in 2003, long after the Internet had become established. It wasn’t novel anymore. ATUS focused on the intent of what people were trying to do.

That said, the 2.75 hour figure of watching TV is a fair bit more stringent than the Nielsen definition of it being turned on, say, while people are paying bills, cleaning the house, preparing food, or consuming it. That 7 minute figure is extraordinarily rigid, with a code book designed to minimize the amount of of time reported into it as possible.

As such, ATUS destroys a huge amount of information about digital exposure.

This is an important fact in understanding how Americans live.

[*The coding ATUS rule book can be found here.]


I’m Christopher Berry.
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