Has internet use really reached TV viewing levels?

A research company claims that Americans now spend as much time using the Internet as they do watching TV. But rival figures vary so wildly that it’s not possible to be certain of much more than a general trend.

The headline claim comes from Forrester Research, which says the average US citizen spends 13 hours a week apiece on the two activities. That’s the first time the annual survey from the firm has found parity among the population as a whole, though younger viewers have been spending more time online than watching TV for some time now.

The New York Times notes that although streaming video is becoming far more popular, this isn’t proof that people are canceling cable services and moving to online viewing: the amount of time people spend watching TV hasn’t changed significantly. However, there has been a drop in the time spend on radio, newspapers and magazines.

I suspect there’s a simple answer for this (other than people finding more hours in the day): people are likely spending more time online, particularly on portable computers and other devices, while “watching” TV (or at least, while the TV is switched on.)

The Times also makes the intriguing philosophical point: if somebody streams video content but watches it through their TV set, are they using the Internet or watching TV?

Meanwhile paidcontent.org has pointed out that while Forrester lists 13 hours a week for average Internet use, comScore has the figure at 7 hours 24 minutes. Why the difference? Well, it appears to be because comScore measures actual use, while Forrester is a survey, with consumers reporting their online activity. And it wasn’t even a case of users being asked to track their activity: they were simply asked how many hours a week they spent on each form of media.

That makes it worth noting a study by Ball State University (PDF) that concludes “Serious caution needs to be applied in interpreting self-report data for media use. TV was substantially under-reported while online video and mobile video usage were over-reported.”

To make things even more confusing, Nielsen reports weekly Internet use as 38 hours 44 minutes for the average person.

Of course, that too could have several explanations: the figure may or may not include work usage; the sample group could leave out people who don’t use the Internet at all (thus upping the average); and there may be different interpretations of what counts as Internet usage (is somebody who downloads a large video file while they sleep still using the Internet?)

(Picture credit: Flickr user Judy Baxter)

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