Sentinel Online

We drove up to New England this past weekend for a quick visit with my family, throwing into the car some clothes and small bags of snacks and gifts. At one time, that would have been it, all that we needed.

But not now. Into the car also went a GPS, an iPod, two cell phones, three digital cameras and a laptop computer — all of which have one thing in common. They all have screens.

And right now, back home, I’m sitting in a room with all those things plus a computer monitor, a digital display for our telephone, a digital weather station, several digital picture frames and a television.

So maybe I’m a little more involved with “electronics” than most — but the fact is that we are surrounded by screens — flat stages of all sizes on which pixels dance to form the data and images that keep us informed and entertained.
I’d been thinking about this since I came across a new report from the Center for Media Design at Ball State University. Released to the public on June 2, it’s called the “Video Consumer Mapping Study” and is said to be “the largest and most extensive observational study of media usage ever conducted.” Its purpose was to find out just how much time Americans spend in front of screens and what kinds of screens get the most attention.

Using specialized devices (with screens), the researchers carefully recorded the “media exposure” of 476 people in six cities, including Philadelphia, for a combined total of 952 days.

The final report contains a massive amount of information, broken into 10 “key findings,” and you can read the whole thing (on your computer screen, of course) at www.researchexcellence.com/vcmstudy.php.

But here are some highlights.

The researchers divide all the kinds of screens that surround us into four categories, called “the four screens.” Screen 1 is what shows on your TV (including live TV, DVD/VCR, DVR playback and game consoles). Screen 2 is what is on your computer screen (including the Web, e-mail, instant messaging, software and computer video). Screen 3 is mobile screens for talking, texting, surfing, plus cameras. Screen 4 is “all other screens,” including “environmental” (like a video screen in a store), GPS devices, and movie screens.

The No. 1 “key finding” in the report is that all Americans of all ages spend between 8 hours and 18 minutes and 8 hours and 33 minutes in front of some kind of screen every day. Except for one group: People ages 45-54 spend 9 hours and 34 minutes watching a screen every day.

And for some of those hours, people are watching more than one screen at once — say, watching “House” while surfing CNN.com while texting Mom on their cell phones.

Old, young — it doesn’t matter. People over 65 are putting their eyeballs on screens just as many hours a day as those 18-24.

One difference among the age groups, however, is what the researchers charmingly call “platform promiscuity.” What they mean is that older people are watching only five screens for 10 minutes or more a day (TV, Web, software, DVD/VCR and e-mail). But people 18-24 spend 10 minutes or more a day on 10 screens (add in mobile talk, console game, DVR playback, IM and mobile texting). But, again, the total screen minutes for both groups is the same.

Another cluster of interesting findings involves that most venerable of screens — the only one around when I was a kid — the television.

From what you hear and read (and see in ads), you’d think that watching TV was “so yesterday” — that all the cool people now watch videos on their computers or their iPhones.

Not true.

First, the researchers found that, when interviewed, people grossly overstate how much time they spend watching videos on the hip, new devices. That’s why we have the impression that people are doing it a lot. The center’s tracking devices told a far different story. The study found that 99 percent of videos are still watched on televisions — including 100 percent for people over 65 and 98 percent for people 18-24.

How much of their video-watching do people actually do on those slick, new phones? Less than one-tenth of one percent, “a level so small that it is extraordinarily difficult to measure,” the center reports. And the amount done on computers over the Internet isn’t much more impressive — one-half of one percent.

Moreover, when it comes to the videos we watch on TV, “live” TV (meaning what’s being broadcast right now) accounts for vastly more of our viewing than stuff recorded on a DVR, tape or DVD.

So, if you’re a fan of live TV, you don’t have to worry that you’re some kind of video dinosaur. Everybody’s (still) doing it that way.

Overall, the study shows that screens are everywhere and we’re watching them for more than a third of our daily lives and half our waking lives. I keep thinking of Orwell’s “1984” — in which Big Brother’s screens are everywhere. The people in the book watch those screens, but, of course, the screens are also watching them.

Thank goodness we haven’t gotten to that point.

Yet.

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