, Volume 117, Issue 3, pp 939-965

Society’s (Virtually) Time-Free Transition into the Digital Age

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Abstract

Three early studies of the impact of IT on American society suggested that it was having a negative impact on social life, as well as mass media use. This article reviews the results from two large multiyear US national surveys that have been monitoring social change in US daily life with high response rates: (1) the 1974–2012 General Social Survey (GSS; with more than 55,000 adult respondents aged 18+) and (2) the 2003–2011 American Time-Use Survey (ATUS; with more than 100,000 such respondents). The GSS has collected time-estimate data on particular social and media activities, while the ATUS surveys have collected complete 24-h diary accounts across a single day. Our analysis is conducted on two levels to determine whether various social/media activities have changed (1) at the aggregate societal level as new IT have diffused over the last 20 years and (2) among individuals who use these new media more. In both surveys, there seems little if any significant impact of these new media on social/media time, even though they had become the predominant source of information and social contact by 2004. GSS respondents in general have not reported lower levels of social or media contact since the 1990s, and while those GSS respondents who spent more time on the Internet did report fewer social visits with relatives, they reported more visits with friends, compared to those who do not use the Internet. The main difference between users and nonusers in the ATUS was with time at paid work, and that was only partially explained by higher Internet use by teens and on days off from work. For reading and certain other behaviors, Internet use was sometimes associated with increased use in these surveys. Moreover, no consistent decline in either social or media activities was found in either survey across this period of Internet diffusion, much in line with the earlier national studies. At the same time, it seems clear that not only the ATUS but diary studies in other countries are failing to capture the significant social impact of IT on the rest of life in the new digital age.