A new study finds that after being flat for five years, the amount of leisure time that Americans spent online grew 20% a year from 2008 to 2010. The report by Needham & Co. analyst Laura Martin, based on an analysis of a U.S. Labor Department survey of 112,000 people, attributes that increase mainly to growing adoption of tablets and other mobile devices.
But leisure time spent online still amounts to just 12 minutes a day, or 4% of the five hours total leisure time that people have per day. That’s because only 11% of all Americans report devoting any time to relaxing online, up from 9% in 2008. Within that subset, time spent pursuing online leisure activities was flat at 100 minutes per day between 2003 and 2010.
One big caveat: the Labor Department’s American Time Use Survey that the Needham study is based on does not include social networks in the definition of leisure time. It also excludes computer and console games. But it includes casual games on Facebook, as well as Internet use, search, casual games and Netflix over mobile devices.
The amount of leisure time spent online among all Americans went up four minutes per person per day during the seven-year period of the study. That was less than half the nine-minute gain per person per day for TV viewing. The 12 minutes of online leisure is dwarfed by the 164 minutes spent watching TV.
As of April 2011, traditional, real-time TV viewing was 44 billion hours a month compared to 10 billion hours for all Internet consumption, according to Nielsen data.
What’s more, the report suggests that rather than taking time from offline activities, online often cannibalizes itself. The biggest gainers in share of time spent online overall were social networks, video games and videos/movies. Conversely, the biggest losers were email, portals such as Yahoo and AOL, and instant messaging.
Categories including search, software and classifieds were all flat, indicating that they may be headed for either declining usage or a potential rebound when the economy improves. The outlook is still unclear.
The overall trend favors closed systems like Facebook and tunes over portals.
“This shift suggests that the Internet is maturing and new entrants are trying to create 'walled gardens’ that allow them to monetize the traffic that comes to their content -- be it games, movies or social banter. This seems an important development in thinking through how money will be made in the future,” notes the study.
It also points out the rising categories are less ad-supported than those that are losing ground or flat. Online games and movies, for instance, mainly use a pay-per-play or subscription model, and Facebook this year is expected to generate $470 million in revenue from its virtual currency, Facebook Credits.
The primary areas where online is eating into offline leisure are socializing, relaxing and thinking. “Since these activities were free in the offline world, this may partly explain why consumers strongly prefer online leisure substitutes to be free,” according to the report.
Looking at demographic differences, the most surprising finding is that 15- to 17-year-olds -- the most avid group in regard to online leisure -- has been spending less time online since peaking in 2007. And contrary to conventional wisdom, people 15 to 24 watch more TV than any other age groups under 45. The study also found that by age 25, online leisure time stabilizes at around 10 minutes per day per person.
Unlike TV, the report concluded that people don’t yet think of the computer as a leisure device. While tablets may change that perception, it’s clear that people view the PC differently than the TV, which is associated in consumers’ minds with “all leisure, all the time.”
It also pointed out the growth in online leisure time is coming from new users rather than existing ones increasing their use. “As new consumers start using the Internet for leisure activities, their usage appears to cap out at 100 minutes and growth must be driven by the next consumer finding things to do online during their leisure time,” stated the study.