War of the Screens: Digital Passes TV as a Time Suck For the 1st Time Ever

And the smallest device is quickly becoming the biggest.

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Five hours reading the Internet. Four hours watching television. Fourteen minutes with a print magazine. Sound about right?

That's what your day looks like, according to a new study on media trends from eMarketer. The survey found that, with the rise of mobile, the U.S. media diet has crossed two thresholds:

(1) Americans are spending more time online than with TV ...

(2) ... and, for the first time ever, they're spending more time gazing into their phones and tablets than blinking into desktop screens.

Here's the four-year change, graphed with data from eMarketer*. "Total digital media time" is at the top in dark blue. Its components, online vs. mobile, are below in lighter shades.

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TV time is barely changing. Online is actually declining. Radio, newspaper and magazine use are all falling. It's all about mobile.

This might be the best way to see the data. I've graphed time spent with the six major media in 2010 versus 2013. Keep in mind, while reading the percents, that the total media diet expanded from 11 to 12 cumulative hours (double-counting for multitasking) in the last four years.

Screen Shot 2013-08-05 at 11.43.30 AM.png

The pessimistic way to see this, if you're in print or television or radio, is that mobile is growing at the expense of TV, print, and perhaps even desktop. As Mary Meeker's famous graph below shows, Americans spend single-digit percentages of their media time with print, but those pages attract 23 percent of all ad spending. If your working theory is that eyeballs move faster than ad dollars but ad dollars find them eventually, it suggests print still has a long way to fall and that desktop ads could even be endangered by the flight of attention to mobile.

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But here's the silver lining for publishers: Since 2010, mobile use has grown three times faster than the decline in radio, newspaper, magazine, and TV combined. (That is: The latter have declined by about half an hour together, while mobile has grown by 90 minutes.) Smartphones and tablets aren't hoarding the media attention pie. They're growing the pie. Out of the house, they offer news and TV anywhere. In the house, they offer a second and smaller screen. As for how we fit ads on those second, smaller screens to pay for all of this news entertainment? Well, that's another article altogether.


* The eMarketer data counts all time spent with the media, including multitasking. So four hours watching TV could overlap with 30 minutes reading the paper and an hour catching up on email on your smartphone.

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Derek Thompson is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where he writes about economics, labor markets, and the entertainment business.

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