WASHINGTON (AFP) – The average American is a ravenous media junkie, consuming up to nine hours a day of television, web time or cellphone minutes, according to new research which raises fresh questions about how technology is revolutionising society.
From iPods filling commuters” ears, the screens scrolling headlines in the elevator at work to proliferating on-the-move tools like cellphones and Blackberry handhelds, media is everywhere in the United States, like much of the rest of the developed world.
As information technology marches on, and search engine giant Google even raises the prospect of free wireless Internet access for whole cities, media in all its forms is almost impossible to escape.
"What does this mean for society?" said Professor Bob Papper, co-author of a study at Ball State University in Indiana, which charted mass media use by Americans.
There has been plenty of speculation on the impact on daily life of fast expanding media. One theory for instance has it that as people become more and more connected electronically, they are becoming less and less connected personally.
Some experts question whether as consumers are swamped by information, they lose the ability to decipher fact from rumor, or find it hard to think through what they hear.
Academic research has yet to prove or disprove such theories, said Papper, who is launching a series of companion studies, including one probing why people are spending so much time online, on the cellphone, or watching television, and how their personalities are affected.
"The average person spends about nine hours per day using some type of media, which is arguably in excess of anything we would have envisaged 10 years ago," Papper told AFP.
The Ball State survey found that while television was still the most dominant media device used by the average American, computers were catching up fast.
"When we combine time spent on the Web, using e-mail, instant messaging and software such as word processing, the computer eclipses all other media with the single exception of television," Papper said.
The Ball State study partially confirms findings of a major look into growing Internet use among Americans published in January of this year by the Pew Internet and American Life project.
On a typical day at the end of 2004, 70 million Americans went online to use email, get news, find health and medical information, book travel or countless other activities, a figure 37 percent higher than four years before, the survey found.
That figure looks set to grow, as new low cost technologies spread the benefits of the world wide web to social groups so far cut out of the information revolution.
Google has announced a proposal for free wireless Internet access for the whole of San Francisco, and a new project from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology envisages a 100 dollar laptop, to be handed out first to poor children in developing countries.
The Ball State study among 400 people over the last few months charting 5,000 hours of media use, tracked 15 different media and gadgets including television, books, magazines, cellphones, the Internet, instant messenging and e-mail.
Among the most interesting conclusions was that 30 percent of ”media time” is spent on one or more device, as people perhaps have on eye on the latest reality show on tv while shuffling through their email.
Another suprising find is that 18 to 24-year-olds spend less time online than any other age group except for the over 65s, giving the lie to the idea that young adults are the most computer literate.
The survey, which found Fridays have the heaviest web and mobile phone traffic, is a minefield of data for advertisers keen to find out who is watching, when.
"If media usage increases on Fridays based on the assumption that people are planning social activities, then this would be potentially the best day to advertise movies, drink and food specials and other products," said Mike Bloxam, a member of the Ball State research team.