Old people in the US are watching a lot more TV

Appointment viewing.
Appointment viewing.
Image: AP Photo/Danny Johnston
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Americans worry about limiting the screen time of their children. They might be worried about the wrong generation.

In 2017, the average American over 65 spent about four hours and 20 minutes watching TV every day. This is an increase of almost 30 minutes since 2003, the first year the government started collecting statistics on TV watching. It’s also more than twice as much daily TV time as 15-34 year olds, who spend less time watching TV now than they did in the early 2000s.

The data are based on a Quartz analysis of the American Time Use Survey, a long-running study which tracks what more than 10,000 Americans do every day. The data on TV watching include streaming and shows watched on any device, not just a traditional television. The increase in screen time among the elderly is not a result of the general aging of the population—the average age of Americans over 65 included in study was around 74 throughout the period.

Is it a problem that the elderly spend so much time in front of screens? Maybe.

Research suggests that watching a lot of TV is unhealthy, mostly because it makes people sedentary. Sitting around for hours watching TV may lead to deteriorating cardiovascular conditions, poor bone health, and difficulty walking.

Even so, binge watching is a cheap source of entertainment, and a way to stay engaged in the world (older people watch a lot of news programming). With TV options expanding hugely over the past decade, perhaps screen time is also becoming more enjoyable, as viewers can engage more deeply in their favorite topics, be it politics, sports, or Law & Order marathons.

Young people in the US are watching less TV, but the old are watching more

Young people’s waning TV watching appears to be mostly the result of substituting TV time for playing video games and using social media. Time spent on gaming and ‘gramming by 15-34 year olds grew by over 15 minutes per day from 2003 to 2017, the most of any age group.