We watch more than we think we doDavid Hoppe

How much television do you think you watch in a day? Or a week? Or a month? Whatever your answer is, double it. That's right: If you're like most people you actually consume twice as much TV and other media as you think you do. So the Ball State researchers found another way of checking up on us. Appropriately enough, they watched us. The researchers doggedly followed participants around; they were there when their subjects woke up in the morning, and they observed their every move (and click of the remote) until they went to bed at night.

This finding comes from Ball State University's Center for Media Design. The scholars there recently conducted a study to try and determine American patterns of media consumption.

In the past when researchers have tried to measure our viewing, listening and reading habits, they have relied on us, the people watching TV shows, listening to the radio and reading the magazines, for their data. They have asked us to keep personal diaries in which we jot down last night's viewing of Fear Factor or that Addams Family marathon on TVLand. Or else they have called us up and conducted one of those phone surveys that so many of us look forward to participating in. In fact, just the other night I was mentioning to my beloved that I wished the phone would ring because the suspense of Animal Cops Detroit was more than I could bear.

Well, it turns out that we media consumers - which is virtually all of us, by the way - aren't very reliable when it comes to logging the amount of time we spend taking all this stuff in. When you think about it, media - which the Ball State study defined as watching television, videotapes or DVDs; listening to the radio, CDs, cassettes or MP3 players; using the Internet or sending and receiving e-mail; reading books, magazines or newspapers; and, yes, talking on the telephone - is so ubiquitous that asking one of us how much time we spend using it is almost like asking how much breathing we do every day. We absorb media without thinking about it.

So the Ball State researchers found another way of checking up on us. Appropriately enough, they watched us. The researchers doggedly followed participants around; they were there when their subjects woke up in the morning, and they observed their every move (and click of the remote) until they went to bed at night.

"Phone surveys reflect a person's perception of their media use but not their actual behavior," said a statement by the researchers. "Diaries give more detail than phone surveys, but we found observation provides much more detail than diaries." If someone said they watched 121 minutes of TV a day in a phone survey, this number jumped to 278 minutes if they used a diary, then jumped again, to 319 minutes, when they were observed directly.

The study's results have been published in The International Digital Media and Arts Association Journal. The headline: "People Spend More Than Double ... The Time With Media Than They Think They Do."

Now this is interesting. It's one of those little bits of information that has a way of growing the more you think about it. Aren't we constantly hearing about how busy we are? Type in "not enough time" for a Google search and you get 13,800,000 headings. You'll find entries about how couples don't have enough time for one another, and about how parents don't have enough time for their kids. There are entries that talk about how we've even become too busy to sleep.

A study by the Heart and Stroke Foundation in Canada found that 43 percent of adults 30 years of age and older claimed to feel "overwhelmed" by their jobs, families and finances. They said they didn't have enough time to deal with these everyday things and the results were higher blood pressure and cholesterol readings as well as a greater incidence of heart attack. But guess what: Three quarters of these respondents also said that their favorite way of trying to handle all this stress was ... watching TV.

It's become commonplace to say that people are so pressed for time that civic or community life is eroding. In his book Bowling Alone, Robert Putnam wrote about how bowling leagues declined by 40 percent between 1980 and 1993. For him, the bowling leagues were a metaphor for a broader social trend. He linked the decline of these leagues to lower voter turnout and church attendance, diminishing union membership and falling rates of volunteerism.

Competition for people's time has also become a preoccupation of many of our cultural organizations. At a recent focus group sponsored by the Indianapolis Museum of Art, a considerable amount of energy was spent soliciting ideas about how the museum might work to attract and retain a larger number of patrons whose time, it was said, was in short supply. The assumption was that all of us are so darned busy leading our go-go lives that the museum, or the symphony or theater, for that matter, had better figure out how to concoct something for us that we would want to do more than anything else out there.

But what if what we'd rather be doing is watching The Simpsons? Or listening to a Miles Davis CD? Or surfing the Web? What if when we say, "We're busy," we really mean we'd rather be in our own heads at home?

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