In digital age, we've become a nation of multitaskers

At first the number looked like a typo. Regular social and mobile media users age 35-64 spend more than 13 hours a day with media, according to research by Knowledge Networks.

More than 13 hours a day? Deduct eating and sleeping, for heavens sake, and what’s left? Are these folks BlackBerry-ing through dinner and dental hygiene?

Still, add up hours spent on the computer at work, time with handheld devices, radio (often while talking on the cellphone) en route home, and overlapping Web surfing and TV viewing at night, and the 11 hours, 17 minutes of daily media the company estimates for the entire U.S. population suddenly doesn’t sound quite so far-fetched.

Moreover, the industry increasingly appears to be betting the directional arrow for such usage is straight up — banking on a multitasking, media-saturated world to keep their high-tech machinery profitably humming. The new math for time spent with media is more, more, more.

All of which might explain the recent hand-wringing about media overload, and whether, to quote a favorite “The Far Side” cartoon, our brains are dangerously close to becoming full.

Major television networks once left for dead have enjoyed a resurgence in this year’s upfront ad market, in part because TV viewing has stayed robust. Credit some of that, perhaps, to the moribund world economy, which has transformed the couch into an attractively affordable option. Whatever the motivation, fears that new media would gradually bleed conventional TV dry simply haven’t materialized.

Instead, new methods of consumption are complementing TV, in a manner that’s beginning to render many social observers uncomfortable.

The anxiety triggered by these evolving patterns can be seen in a flurry of “What is the Internet/media doing to us?” journalism. The Wall Street Journal featured dueling columns debating whether the Web is collectively making us smarter or dumber. The New York Times went Page One with a story where scientists fretted that “our ability to focus is being undermined by bursts of information,” and the Los Angeles Times followed up with a column about people who have begun dialing back after “overdosing on social media.”

There’s little doubt that media time has been steadily building. According to Knowledge Networks’ research panel, media use among adults in the aforementioned age range climbed 35% (or about three hours worth) over the last decade — up from 8 1/3 daily hours in 2000. Time in front of the TV has also grown, even if the terms of engagement have shifted thanks to have-it-your-way wrinkles like on-demand and DVR viewing.

“All these other avenues are not taking away from regular TV so far,” says Knowledge Networks VP-group account director David Tice. “It’s not cannibalizing it.”

Nearly 10% of TV viewing is now concurrent with surfing the Internet. Major studios, meanwhile, are forging ahead with apparatus to deliver a bottomless well of content anyplace, anytime, anywhere — under names like TV Everywhere and XFinity — even as the wizards at Apple, in particular, improve and refine portable devices capable of receiving it with breathtaking clarity.

Aside from providing a rationale for biometrics and other forms of academic study — seeking to determine the still-unknown physiological, psychological and sociological effects of being plugged in all the time — for media companies, these issues are more prosaic.

Virtually every gamble they’re making hinges on people’s boundless desire to continuously interact with media, in new ways and locations. Nielsen has even graduated from discussing the three-screen environment — as in TV, computer and mobile — to issuing its first “fourth screen” report, monitoring exposure to advertising in “venues like movie theaters, bars and restaurants, health clubs, gas stations, and hotels.”

If anything slows or disrupts the flow, what happens to everybody’s intricately woven plans?

Fortunately for media giants, despite anecdotal evidence of people pushing back against the technological tide — turned off by friends’ abuse of Twitter, or excessive sharing on Facebook — there’s little reason to anticipate a mass exodus toward tuning out.

But can use keep growing enough to keep all these content providers afloat, and is greater immersion in media ultimately good news — either individually or as a society? Like so much in this rapidly changing space, we barely know how to frame the question, much less divine the answer.

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