In early 1996, when this column was conceived, there was a strong suspicion that the Internet would eventually have a significant impact on broadcast television. It wasn't clear at the time whether TV and the Internet would become partners, competitors or perhaps, mortal enemies.
Some of the murkiness is beginning to clear. Thanks to vastly improved and lower-cost Internet technology, more users and new data on human behavior, we are getting a clearer picture of how television and the 'net are co-existing.
The average Internet user in the United States spends three hours a day online. Internet users watch television for one hour and 42 minutes a day, compared with the national average of two hours. Much of that online time is devoted to work; more than half to communications.
These facts were revealed in a new survey by the Stanford Institute for the Quantitative Study of Society, a research group that has been exploring the social consequences of the Internet. The results of the survey were first made public by The New York Times.
For the average survey respondent, an hour on the Internet reduces time spent watching TV by about 10 minutes, or about a half-hour per day for the average Internet user who is online about three hours per day.
This snapshot comes in a time of extraordinary change in the United States. It's easy to forget that the first Web browser appeared in 1994.
Since then, net connectivity has gone from almost zero to about 60 percent of Americans. An additional 10 to 15 percent have access at their workplace or school, and an estimated 70-75 percent now have an e-mail address.
The survey reveals how much the Internet has become embedded in American life, both at home and at the office, where about a third of one's total time on the Internet is consumed. But for most users, the Internet is a means of communication.
About 57 percent of Internet time is spent on e-mail, instant messaging or in chat rooms. Of this 57 percent, work-related communications constitutes about one-third; communication with friends, one-third; and family, about one-sixth.
However, unlike the telephone, the Internet enables activities beyond communication. The remaining 43 percent of time on the Internet is spent playing games (8.7 percent), surfing (15 percent) and shopping (10 percent).
Perhaps you'll recall a study a few years ago that found increasing physical isolation among Internet users. The very idea that the Internet hampered social relationships caused outrage among those who were then promoting the concept of the great "information highway."
This is the same group of researchers at Stanford who released that controversial report in 2000. This time, the researchers told The New York Times they have gathered further evidence that Internet use has reduced the time people spend socializing and even sleeping.
According to the study, not only does an hour of time spent using the Internet reduce TV time by 10 minutes, but that hour also reduces face-to-face contact with friends, co-workers and family by 23.5 minutes, and it shortens sleep by 8.5 minutes.
For the average 'net user, that translates into 70 minutes less face time and 25 minutes less sleep.
"People don't understand that time is hydraulic," meaning that time spent on the Internet is time taken away from other activities," Norman H. Nie, director of institute, told The Times.
The latest study also found that online gaming is a major part of Internet use. Users reported that they spent 8.7 percent of their Internet time playing online games.
One of the most remarkable statistics the report discovered is that as much as 75 percent of the population in the United States now has access to the Internet at home or work. Nie mentioned that the expansion of Internet use has been nearly as fast as that of the telephone, even though computers are more "complicated" to use.
Those complications represent an amazing time-waster for Americans. Despite marketing claims that PCs boost personal productivity, respondents reported spending 14 minutes daily dealing with computer problems. That would suggest that Internet users spend a total of 10 workdays each year trying to fix their PCs.
Another negative factor is spam, which is costing a huge loss of time for e-mail users. The survey found that about five minutes out of every hour on the Internet (more than 8 percent of the total time online) are spent dealing with spam. This translates into more than 10 full (eight-hour) workdays per year, assuming the computer is used daily for 50 weeks out of the year.
Finally, in compiling a demographic picture of net users, the study found that unemployed people spend more time online than other Internet users. They are followed by the disabled and by full-time students. Full-time students use instant messaging more than other Internet users, while the unemployed and the disabled spend more time than others in chat rooms.
While overall Internet use does not differ by gender, female respondents on average use e-mail, instant messaging and social networking more than men. Men devote more time to browsing, newsgroups and chat rooms. Younger people, between 18 and 29 years of age, favor interactive forms of online communication--instant messaging and chat rooms--over e-mail, which appeals to older people.
The data in the study titled "What Do Americans Do On The Internet?" indicates that Internet users, particularly younger ones, are moving away from traditional, passive television viewing as they integrate the Internet deeper into their daily lives.
However, the Internet, especially in areas such as news and information, may actually be developing into a new form of television for a generation weaned on interactive communications.
Perhaps, in the next study, we'll find that the Internet has caused traditional television media to morph into something quite new and different.
(The full Internet report summarized in this story can be downloaded at: www.stanford.edu/group/siqss/.)
Frank Beacham is an independent writer based in New York.
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