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Social Mobility Memos

How free time became screen time

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The digital age holds great promise for social mobility by providing better access to information enhancing social connectivity. Many Americans have plenty of “screen time” in workplaces or schools.

But screen time increasingly dominates our leisure hours, too, according to the annual American Time Use Survey, which is based on a nationally representative sample of individuals aged 15 and older.

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“Screen time” and “active leisure” are necessarily hard to precisely define. (For example, reading for leisure was included in “active leisure,” but reading on an e-reader could be thought of as time spent on the screen; see the technical note at the end for the exact coding descriptions.)

Nonetheless, these data show a clear trend—adult Americans are spending more of their non-work/education time on a screen. Similar trends have been seen among children and younger adolescents. Between 2004 and 2009, the average 8-18 year-old increased the amount of time spent watching TV by 38 minutes a day. Meanwhile, time spent on computers rose by 27 minutes, and time spent playing video games by 24 minutes.

Authors

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Eleanor Krause

Senior Research Assistant - Center on Children and Families

The upsides and downsides of screens

Of course, not all screen time is bad. In many cases, the ability to search for a wide range of information, apps, and video games may boost educational outcomes and have other beneficial impacts on cognitive development.

But prolonged time spent watching television is associated with poorer health, such as type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease. Playing computer games, browsing the internet, and other forms of sedentary leisure may contribute to obesity. Such screen time is also associated with lower grades and lower levels of personal contentment among youth. A study published in JAMA Pediatrics found that reducing screen time for 3rd to 5th graders was associated with less weight gain, better grades in school, and more pro-social behaviors. Many of these impacts may not be due to the screen time itself, but to the lack of the activity that it displaces. More time spent in front of a screen inherently means less time doing other things.

Class gaps in screen time

Screen time has increased for every group in society, and there is not much difference between men and women. But there are large gaps by income and education level. People in lower-income households reported more screen time and less active leisure than higher-income households. A similar pattern can be seen by education:

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Time use and social mobility

Are there implications here for social mobility? There could be. Excessive screen time is associated with negative health outcomes, and health is a factor in economic mobility. Screen time trends may then illustrate another factor exacerbating the opportunity gap. But it will take more research to get a clear picture. Screen time is increasing, and varies by class background. For now, the jury is out on what this means for opportunity.


Technical note  

“Screen time” includes the following activities in the ATUS coding lexicon: television and movies – not religious (120303), television – religious (120304), computer use for leisure (120308), attending movies/film (120403), computer use for volunteer activities (150101), household and personal e-mail and messages (020904), and playing games (120307). Playing games may include some non-screen activity, such as board and card games.

“Active leisure” includes the following activities: socializing and communicating with others (120101/99), attending or hosting social events (120201/02/99), arts and crafts as a hobby (120309), collecting as a hobby (120310), other hobbies (120311), reading for personal interest (120312), writing for personal interest (120313), and participating in sport, exercise, and recreation (130101-36/99).

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