Media & Entertainment

Out of Focus: U.S. Adults Shift Attention Between Screens

Image Credit: Photo by Jens Kreuter on Unsplash

In 2019, screen time is often a hot button topic. With over 80% of U.S. adults using a smartphone and over 50% owning a tablet, owning multiple screens is becoming more normalized than ever before. Based on a recent study by CivicScience, using multiple screens at the same time is a trend that may also be taking root.

For the purposes of the study, CivicScience looked at U.S. adult behavior when watching a favorite TV show or movie, which the research firm has been tracking since 2014. Of responses in the past year, 38% of respondents say that their second screen is put away. However, there are two other notable response categories that speak to the level of distraction. 23% of respondents are viewing mobile apps, games or content not related to the show, while 18% are checking email or texting.

While attention appears to be relatively high, when the responses are simplified into those who are engaged with the TV show on the primary screen versus those who are distracted, it becomes clear that almost half of adult respondents (48%) are distracted by their second screen.

The percentage of those distracted by unrelated content on apps has increased steadily since 2015. While those distracted by emails and texts have also increased since 2015, the last year has seen a slight downward trend in this category.

This data suggest that the primary culprit for TV viewing distraction in 2019 is, in fact, mobile apps and games not related to the show on the primary screen.

Of all respondents in the last year, those most likely to stash their second screen away are male, while those most likely to be viewing unrelated apps and content are female. The data also reveal that behavior is similar across streaming services. Those who subscribe to Netflix, for example, behave similarly to Amazon Prime subscribers, suggesting that behavior is less related to the level of engagement of a particular series, show, or platform and more related to individual choice.

The biggest callout is those with Netflix or Amazon Prime streaming are more likely to be distracted by another screen than those without the service.


As it turns out, distraction and self-awareness may also be related. Of those who consider themselves addicted to their digital devices, 37% use their second screen for content unrelated to their primary TV show.

As for distraction from app usage, the data show that it peaks among those who spend 2 or more hours a day on social media.

There is, after all, only so much time in the day. And for some, it seems, multitasking primary and second screen usage may be essential.

Stress and the Second Screen

It is well established that multitasking can be harmful to your brain. But, it turns out that a split focus can also be correlated with stress. Those who consider themselves stressed out are the most likely to be engaged with unrelated content on a second screen.

The fact that U.S. adults are multitasking while watching TV may not be surprising. The fact that the biggest distraction from primary screen content comes from apps and games may also not be the biggest shock. But, what is relevant is that this behavior is increasing at a rapid rate, stretching attention spans and impacting stress levels, with no indication of slowing down.

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