Their cellphone apps ping, buzz, or flash dozens of notifications every hour
Note to readers: Two years ago I asked my second-year students in Media Economics at the University of Navarra to do an analysis of their media expenditures and usage. This post is based on that survey.
First, I asked them to estimate their monthly expenditures on media, using a spreadsheet with entries for internet in the home, land line telephone, data plan for cellphones, cable TV or satellite TV, streaming services, digital and physical books, DVDs and CDs for video and music, cinema tickets, news publications, video games, and anything else.
In the second exercise, they had the option of tracking the alerts and notifications they receive on their phones from any of some two dozen possible sources or estimating how much time they spend on digital media in a 24-hour period.
Average media expenditure: 201 euros a month
Of the 34 students who reported their media expenditures, the average was 201 euros a month (median 195). More than half the students were from Latin America, where all of these media tend to be a little cheaper than in Europe. Students collected much of the information from their parents, and many expressed surprise at how expensive the services were.
The most common and largest expense is the quadruple play provided by the internet service providers – usually cable TV or telephone companies. This includes internet, telephone, mobile data plans for several devices, and entertainment. (In a similar survey I gave to my students at Tec of Monterrey in Mexico in 2014, they reported spending $177 a month.)
Engagement: alerts and time spent
Fifteen students tracked the alerts or notifications they received, and 22 measured the time they spend on various media in a 24-hour period, usually through apps they have on their phones.
Average number of notifications that students reported receiving in one 60-minute period of their choosing was 47.2, and the median was 47.5. These came from a list of some 20 popular apps. For a professor, this is a challenge. Students are potentially being distracted by a vibrating or silently flashing cellphone almost once a minute.
Some professors ban the phones from the desktop. I don’t. The students also use these phones in class for research related to the class topic. They live in their cellphones, for better or worse. I figure that professors should figure out ways to be part of that, with in-class quizzes and activities.
Average time spent on media in a 24-hour period was 6 hours and 34 minutes. Medianwas 5 hours and 33 minutes. By far, the most time spent was on WhatsApp (a free, encrypted message service popular globally but less used in the US) and Instagram.
The time spent on WhatsApp is often used for group projects related to schoolwork. It makes it easier for students on different continents in different time zones to collaborate. Of course, it is also used for socializing.
Students themselves recognize that their time on Instagram is not always satisfying or useful.
Some trends and fads
Four years ago, Snapchat was used by many of my students. But when Instagram, owned by Facebook, began producing features that duplicated or improved upon Snapchat’s rather clumsy interface, Instagram users grew in my survey, and Snapchat faded. (See below.)
One year ago, I asked my students if any of them were using TikTok. None would admit to using it: they dismissed it as a service aimed at pre-teens and younger kids. This year, more than a fourth are using it.
Usage reported by my students this year:
Twitter is much more heavily used in Spain than many other countries. Less than a third of the students admitted to spending any time on Facebook. It could be that they have replaced it with WhatsApp to maintain connections with their high-school friends, parents, grandparents, and extended family. However, the students may have deliberately downplayed their use of Facebook. It is seen as old-fashioned and uncool.
One student reported spending 17 hours a day on media, including two hours on Instagram, two hours on YouTube, three hours on video streaming, and three hours on music apps. While some of this usage might overlap (such as listening to music or music videos), the student also reported feeling sleep deprived.
Growing awareness of addiction
In last year’s survey – Is six hours a day on my phone too much? – students for the first time expressed concern that they might be trapped in a distraction machine. It was the first survey in which students described using anti-distraction apps such as timers or using airplane mode to control alerts and time spent.
This year’s survey respondents continued the trend. Four of their comments:
“I do not pay attention in class”: “One of the conclusions I get from this exercise is that I expend most of the day in social media. In order to get to these numbers, I normally use my phone during class, which means I do not pay quite a lot of attention on them. I think I have to start using less the phone during the day. Maybe I could use one of those apps that, once you exceed the amount of time you want to use an app, it blocks them. That would be a great idea, if not, this situation is going to have a negative impact on my academic life.”
“Learning is totally technological“: “I am fairly aware of how much I use my phone per day. Since the “screen time” option can be found on the settings of my iPhone I tend to check it regularly and feel better when a notification pops up that my screen time has gone down on the week. It is for that reason that instead of surprising me, it felt normal to see that I spend 8 hours looking at a screen daily. It is not even a question that I would very much like to not look at my phone that much, but I also think that given the time we are living in, technology will become even more integrated in my daily life as the years go by. Even now all my homework is done through a computer, and given that I am seeing classes from home even learning has become totally technological.”
“Instagram is completely useless”. “I definitely spend too much time on Instagram looking at absolutely nothing. I am fully aware of this, but I’ve come to realize that I open on impulse. I just pick up my phone and immediately open that app as it were a necessity, when in reality it can be detrimental to my mental health and productivity. There’s nothing wrong with a little bit of time, but after 30 minutes, everything I see on Instagram is completely useless. I also want to touch upon how little I spend on actual magazine and news websites, because I get most of my news from social media. Spotify also includes podcasts, which is usually from where I get my news. So, even if I don’t always look at news apps, the interconnectivity in media today allows me to be in the know.”
“I sometimes feel invaded, controlled”: “I haven’t never before taken this kind of experiment, and I have to say that I got surprised because I had a lot of notifications. Never before I had paid attention to how much time I spend on social media (which is, by the way, a lot). I also want to remark that sometimes I don’t answer them [notifications] at the moment, not only because I see the notification later but also because I feel controlled and like they are invading my space. . . . I also feel like I always have to give explanations of what I was doing when someone called me and I wasn’t able (or didn’t want) to get that call or answer that message.”
Some limitations to this survey
This was not a rigorous scientific study. In some cases the students used apps to track their behavior and pointed out how those apps might have overestimated or underestimated the time spent.
In other cases, the students were simply making a best guess, and this allows for potential error. Also, the largest expense – the quadruple play – was sometimes reported for an entire household, not just for the student, so the expense per person was not clear.
Over the four years I gave this survey in Navarra, I changed the questions slightly. And finally, the sample size was always small, around 40 students, almost all of them majoring in journalism or audiovisual communication.