What percentage of thirty- and forty-somethings go online just to pass the time? I asked a few writers at The Atlantic. Their guesses matched my own. "Ninety percent," said one thirty-something. "One hundred percent," said another (nearly) thirty-something. "Eight-five percent" and "seventy-nine percent" were other guesses. ("Thirty percent," said a younger editor, who also allowed that "I don't really know any 40-year olds.")
All wrong. The answer is 66 percent, according to a new Pew survey on Internet use. A third of them don't go online for fun? Surprising. Even more surprising, one fifth of Americans in their teens and twenties claim they "never" go online for fun, which strikes me as an example of the phenomenon some surveyors call "lying through one's teeth."
It also raises a reasonable follow-up question: What's the heck wrong with all of these people? Don't they know how awesome the Internet is?
A methodological explanation for this survey is that respondents had different definitions of "just for fun." Does going online to watch a movie count as "a particular reason" or it is a fun way to pass the time? Are you reading this website "just for fun"? Some of you might say it's your news source that fulfills your civic responsibility to follow current events. Others might consider it a non-essential diversion. (We welcome both groups, by the way!)
Most of the articles about this report concluded that the Internet was now, officially, a giant and growing waste of time. That's the wrong interpretation. A better interpretation is that the Internet is a rapidly growing reservoir of extremely affordable leisure attention. Much of the Internet's entertainment is free (or at least, there is no additional cost once you've paid for or secured an Internet connection), but it generates real value. It saves us time and time. It offers real rewards. Brad DeLong put it best:
Given a choice between doubling the amount of calories consumed by the typical middle-class American family--or doubling the amount of furniture purchased, or doubling the amount of automobiles owned, or doubling the number of clothes in our closets--and halving the time we must spend searching for what we want to buy, to read, to watch, to listen to, can anyone think that this is a difficult choice?
And don't forget that mindless procrastination makes us more productive in the long run.