88% of Americans use a second screen while watching TV. Why?

Aries

Administrator
One of the little info-nuggets that has been ricocheting around my brain this year came from Mary Meeker's annual "Internet Trends" report. Meeker, a venture capitalist with Bond Capital, presented her research at the Code Conference back in June, amid the heat of the Arizona desert. Her presentation was, as usual, a massive (300+ slides!) data dump of interesting information on all things Internet, but the item that most intrigued me was right there in the lower-left corner of slide 38.
According to data from Nielsen, the TV metrics company, 88 percent of Americans "use a second digital device while watching TV." Seventy-one percent of Americans "look up content related to content they are watching," while 41 percent of Americans are busy messaging "friends/family about content they are watching."
Can this possibly be true? And can it be good for us?

Ars has reported on human brains and multitasking for more than a decade, and the general consensus seems to be: we don't, as a species, do it very well. Sure, we can handle two tasks at once, but only after we have learned one so well it can be handled almost unconsciously. (Think driving down the interstate while having a conversation, then bringing your attention back to the road and realizing you've been on mental "autopilot" for the last five minutes.) But attempting to do two new and/or creative tasks at once just doesn't work well.
Couple this research with the more recent concern over screens, "screen time," and the importance of attention, and I'm surprised at Nielsen's findings. My attitude, when watching TV, is that a show you pay attention to precludes the use of phone or laptop; if you're using another screen, you're not actually watching the show. Pick better shows to watch, people! And then watch them!

Say you use your TV not as a way to consume compelling crafted content, but as background noise that helps you relax. (I highly recommend Sunday afternoon golf for this purpose.) Tooling around on a laptop while the TV plays in the background is now not quite so odd.
Or perhaps you watch TV simply as a way to kill time. Perhaps you're in pain, or recovering from illness, or simply bored out of your mind. The goal is not necessarily to direct your full and undivided attention to the screen; it is to get through the day until something better comes along. Using a second screen here, too, makes sense.
Or maybe you are alone but want TV to be a more social experience. For whatever reason, in-person socializing won't work, so you keep up a running group text with friends who are watching the same episode. My wife and I recently tried this when she was away for a week, watching episodes of Seinfeld together on Hulu while attempting to keep up a run of clever commentary by text. It went... okay.

 
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