Curious how we squeeze 14 hours of media into each day?

The results of Ofcom’s annual report (which surveys the media habits of 2,800 UK adults and children) are out and the statistics point to one indisputable conclusion: we are a nation that lives life in front of a screen.

The report, which gauges the country’s level of media consumption, found that not only do adults spend more time on media (8 hours and 41 minutes) than they do asleep (8 hours and 21 minutes), but teens and young adults rack up a whopping 14 hours and 7 minutes of media activity every day.

How is this possible, you may ask? By ‘media stacking’, Ofcom’s results would suggest.

Media stacking is the practice of performing multiple tasks on two or more digital devices at the same time. (Think: watching TV, reading an email, and typing a homework assignment—all at the same time.) Also common is ‘media meshing’, which is similar, but occurs when the content of the media is related. (Think: watching TV, whilst tweeting about the show you’re watching, whilst also texting your friend to discuss it.)

Media stacking is essentially the 21st century version of multitasking, allowing those aged 16-24 to squeeze over 14 hours of media usage into just over 9 hours by doing multiple tasks at once. Research suggests, however, that multitasking doesn’t actually exist: a study by Stanford demonstrated that those who ‘multitasked’ were actually just ‘task switching’ in a clumsy and inefficient way, and that the more we try to multitask, the less able we actually are to effectively focus on just one thing.

The problems that arise from media meshing and media stacking appear to be a relatively recent exacerbation of a tendency to focus on too much at once, which may lead to an inability to properly focus on anything. This can pose pretty serious consequences, particularly if we’re engaged in something important like working, studying or communicating.

Ofcom’s study also brings up a number of health concerns linked to excessive screen time and inactivity, such as diabetes and obesity, as well as the potential social, psychological and emotional effects of devoting so much of our lives to media.

According to Dr. Aric Sigman, a specialist in psychology and childhood disease, the Ofcom results indicate a serious “health and development issue” for children, who “are spending more of their recreational time looking at screens, particularly in bedrooms by themselves.”

Dr. Sigman went on to say, “We need to think of recreational screen time as a form of consumption in the way that we think of sugar, fat, alcohol, hours in the sun—measured in units of hours per day.”

Sigman’s message—that media, like anything, is only healthy in moderation—seems almost common sense. The fact that we do not yet measure our media use in the same way we would measure how much we eat, drink or gamble, suggests that we still think of media as a harmless element of our daily lives, rather than a form of consumption that requires moderation.

To see more from Ofcom’s 2014 report visit: http://stakeholders.ofcom.org.uk/market-data-research/market-data/communications-market-reports/cmr14/

To read more about Stanford’s study on multitasking, visit: http://news.stanford.edu/news/2009/august24/multitask-research-study-082409.html