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									                       What I Want, When I Want It:
        Understanding The Media Usage Patterns of 18 to 34 Year Olds
                                     John Carey
                           Fordham University Business School

To understand the media usage patterns of 18 to 34 year olds, it is useful to go into the
field and observe this group first hand, much like anthropologists study behavior in
distant cultures by traveling to far away lands and living in the local communities. This
report presents the findings of an ethnographic study I conducted in five states that
utilized detailed observations and interviews with 18 to 34 year olds in homes, offices,
gyms, sports bars, college campuses and dorms*.

Lifestyles and Media Use
    To understand the media usage of this demographic group, the place to start is not
technology but lifestyle—where and how they live, and the ways lifestyle affects media
usage. Consider first a group of three recent college graduates who share an apartment in
Manhattan. They have very hectic and irregular schedules. On any given evening, one
may be at a gym; another may be out on a date; or the three of them may be visiting the
local sports bar. Much of their media use moves later into the evening and their
apartment is crammed with media options: multiple televisions, PCs, cellphones,
videogame consoles and MP-3 players. They also have broadband access to the Web and
a wireless network. To reach them, media have to fit flexibly into their irregular
schedules because they may not be available when regularly scheduled media are
    In the Chicago suburbs, I studied a couple in their early 30s who recently had a child.
Their schedule has become regimented around the needs of the child. They have only
narrow slices of free time available to consume media and often go to bed by nine
o'clock. Therefore, media usage is confined to one of these slivers of free time. A third

 The study was sponsored by the Online Publishers Association. Other researchers
contributing to the study were Eileen Connell, Laura Forlano and Barbara Taylor.
Related survey research is available at
example of the varying lifestyles of this demographic is an off-campus house in the
Boston area where nine males, all juniors and seniors in college, live in a communal
setting. They have broadband, a wireless network, nine laptops, nine cell phones, five
televisions, four video game consoles and no land lines. Their appetite for media is
voracious and they are quite comfortable in a media saturated environment.1 Late in the
evening, generally between 10 pm and 1 am, most of them gather in a living room to
watch television (other studies indicate that this is prime time for this age group2).
Typically, three or four of them will also have a laptop open and surf the Web as they
watch television. The Web surfing may be unrelated to the television content, but much
of it is related, such as watching a lot of sports on television and getting into debates
about obscure sports facts. They then surf sports Web sites to get statistics to back up
their positions. This combination of simultaneously watching television and wirelessly
accessing the Web was common in many of the households that participated in the study,
especially for those 18 to 24.

The Settings For Media Use
   The settings where most 18 to 34 year olds live, work or attend school are different
from the images we have of average American households, offices or colleges. By virtue
of their age, most are just starting out in life, so they typically have smaller office and
household spaces. Also, some of the households visited had sparse or makeshift
furniture. Yet, they all were well equipped with media technology. In one house, a
computer, television and video game console were laid out on the floor, rather than on a
table or stand, and people in the household used these devices from the floor because they
had not gotten around to getting much furniture. In addition, many of the 18 to 34 year
olds regularly used media in households other than their own, such as one woman in her
early 30s who visited her mother after work and before going home. In some cases, the
friend or relative had higher-end equipment. For example, the young woman noted above
had dial up access to the Web in her home but her mother had broadband. Other common
examples were visiting friends' homes to watch television, play a CD, DVD or
videogames, and to surf the Web.

   Many 18 to 34 year olds use media in public locations such as a gym, sports bar or
coffee shop. Many of these locations are well equipped with media. Also, young people
often bring their own media to these locations. For example, television sets are
ubiquitous in bars and gyms; many coffee shops, public parks, and even some bars or
gyms provide access to the Web. In addition, it is very common for people in this
demographic group to carry media such as a cellphone or an MP-3 player with them
wherever they go. Moreover, they have come to expect pervasive access to media and
demand portability.
  These experiences in turn shape attitudes about media and have led to some important
changes. For example, many young people in the study felt that they had easier access to
the Web than to a newspaper, reversing earlier notions that newspapers are portable while
computers are a burden to lug around. They felt that they could easily access the Web in
multiple locations (home, work, and many public locations) whereas carrying or finding a
newspaper was perceived as a burden for them.
   The college environment has changed significantly compared to a decade ago.
Television sets are more common than in the past and are often found in many lobby
areas of buildings, dorm lounges, and individual dorm rooms. Access to the Web,
through wired and wireless broadband networks is pervasive— by one measure, 80
percent of college students have broadband access to the Web3. Students can access the
Web in drop-in labs scattered around campuses, library carrels, hallways outside of
classes that are equipped with rows of computers, lounge areas near dining halls, and
ubiquitously throughout dorms. In addition, some campuses have wireless wide area
networks so students can access the Web virtually anywhere on campus via a laptop
computer. A more subtle change is the use of better speakers on most computers
compared to a few years ago related to the growing use of computers for music and Web
entertainment that contains audio.
   Equally startling to an observer who attended college only 10 years ago, cellphones
are everywhere. As students exit a class, it is common for half of them to go on their
cellphone; some professors schedule cellphone breaks during long class sessions to keep
students happy; and many students secretly send text messages to classmates during
lectures. Colleges have also had to accept lost revenue from telecommunications services

in dorms as many students have abandoned land lines in favor of cellphones. The
cellphone as well as MP-3 players/iPods further strengthen the core expectation of this
young generation for portable access to media. One student, when asked why he
tolerated the poorer quality of cellphone calls compared to a regular phone as well as
dropped calls in poor coverage areas, retorted, "Why would anyone want a phone that is
tied to a wall?"

   There has been much discussion about multi-tasking among young people and many
examples of multi-tasking were observed in this study. Several factors underlie this
phenomenon. The first is that young people believe that multi-tasking is efficient, and
they can accomplish more if they use two or more media at a time. Whether this
perception is true is subject to debate, but many in the study voiced this opinion. Further,
using multiple media to cram tasks together seems to be a partial solution for the time
pressure they feel. Second, there are many combinations of media that lend themselves
to multi-tasking: the Web and television; cellphones and the Web; music and reading;
instant messaging and Web surfing; and sometimes they use three or more media at the
same time. Media that are always on (e.g., television and broadband Web) or always
with them (e.g., cellphones and MP-3 players) lend themselves to multi-tasking because
they are readily available.
   Third, media used in multi-tasking may be “foreground” or “background” and often a
person moves back and forth between these media. For example, a person may be using
the computer (foreground) but listening to television (background). Later, that person
may be watching television but will go to the computer during a break in programming.
A person may even multi-task within one medium, e.g., watch two sporting events on
television, one in a small picture-in-picture window, and switch the main screen back and
forth depending on the action; or, play a game on a Web site and combine this with
sending instant messages. These patterns were observed in a number of households and
college settings.
   A fourth characteristic of multi-tasking is the use of media for psychological and
functional needs. For example, one woman was observed getting information from the

Web (functional need) while listening to her stereo, which she described as "keeping me
company" (psychological need). Taken together, these characteristics indicate that multi-
tasking is a rich and multi-dimensional form of behavior. The more frenetic forms of
multi-tasking such as using three or more media at a time or talking on the cellphone and
simultaneously conducting six different instant messaging exchanges diminished with
age among the study group. They were more common among 18 to 24 year olds.

The Functions of Media in People's Lives4
   One goal in the study was to identify core functions of media in the lives of 18 to 34
year olds—not what they watch, read or listen to, but why? In discussing television,
three core functions of television were cited by many in the study group: escape;
entertainment; and information. They watch television to escape from the tensions in
their everyday world and participate in the lives of fictional characters in a drama or
situation comedy. Television also represents simple entertainment that allows them to
laugh, relax and have fun. In addition, television keeps them informed about the world
through news.
   In discussing radio, people in the study group focused on radio in cars, where they use
it the most. They described the role of radio in their lives as keeping them company,
providing entertainment in the form of music and reconnecting them to the outside world.
For example, radio news keeps them informed about news events, weather and traffic
while they are in a car and disconnected from other sources of media. They also
discussed a distinction between music on radio and music on an MP-3 player. The
function of radio music (which is not always fulfilled in their minds) is to be spontaneous
and provide songs they do not anticipate or control, whereas an MP-3 player is about
“control” over music. The function of magazines was described as to meet "my
interests"—narrow content areas that are “important to me.” Many in the study group,
especially those 18 to 24, did not read newspapers. Indeed, when asked about
newspapers, many of them would say "I go to the New York Times" or "I go to the
Chicago Tribune." For them, the online version of a newspaper was synonymous with
newspapers generically.

   The Web was characterized by a breadth of functions. These included information,
communication, and entertainment. The entertainment function was described as
relatively new and growing. The Web was also characterized as convenient,
customizable to personal interests, and giving people control over content. One young
woman said, "It gives me what I want, when I want it." MP-3 players were characterized
by their portability, depth ("all my CDs") and control. Cellphones were also
characterized by their portability, along with communication and staying in touch with a
person's network of family and friends. In addition, many were using the added features
of cellphones such as an alarm that wakes them up in the morning.

Changes in Media Habits
   There have been many changes in the media habits of 18 to 34 year olds over the past
few years. Study participants described more use of the Web (especially among those
who had acquired broadband), somewhat less use of newspapers and magazines, heavy
reliance on cellphones and abandonment by some of land lines, and more multi-tasking
across media, especially between the Web and television.
   More use of the Web has both causes and effects. It has been caused by stronger
adoption of broadband, leading to a better experience, and more convenient access to the
Web from multiple computers in homes, wireless networks, and greater availability of the
Web in public settings such as colleges and coffee shops. Some of the effects that have
followed from more use of the Web include developing regular habits of usage, growth in
use of the Web for entertainment, and both shorter and longer sessions. Indeed, the
concept of a Web “session” (a product of dial-up Web access) may have become an
anachronism, as Web usage is woven more closely into the fabric of everyday life.
   The long term implications of greater online media usage by 18 to 34 year olds for
newspapers and magazines will require more time to assess. In the past, young people
were never strong readers of newspapers. However, when they got married, bought a
house and became rooted in a community, they took up the newspaper reading habit 5.
Will the current generation of 18 to 24 year olds follow in the footsteps of earlier
generations or have they already formed fixed online habits for acquiring information?

   We are just beginning to understand the ramifications of young people's reliance on
cellphones. They have become almost an extension of the body, worn at all times, and
used for many purposes beyond telephone calls, such as text messaging, games, alarm
clocks, and cameras. Laura Forlano, a scholar who has studied cellphone use in many
countries, argues that cellphones are changing young people's sense of time and space.6
She cites as one example, the difference between how young people arrange meetings
with friends today compared with an earlier generation, i.e., rather than arrange a time
and a place to meet in advance, they hone-in on a time and place over several calls
leading right up to the actual meeting because they are in nearly continuous contact with
each other through cellphones and live in a cellphone space by virtue of wearing it.
   Greater multi-tasking between the Web and television appears to be related to the
pervasive presence of both media in many homes and the increasing synergy between
television programming and related Web sites.

   In the mid 1960s, Canadian media theorist Marshall McLuhan argued that media
surround us and form an environment in which we live, much like the air we breathe or
the water that forms an environment for fish.7 He also commented that people were
experiencing information overload—they could not handle all the media that bombarded
them continuously. Compare the media environment in the 1960s with the media
environment today: a few broadcast stations versus hundreds of cable and satellite
channels; phonographs versus stereos, MP-3 players and iPods; no home computers
versus the Web and pervasive access to computers for many. We have far more media
and the saturation level of information is much greater. Yet, the current generation of 18
to 34 year olds seems to be quite comfortable functioning in this dense media
   What matters a great deal in the current media environment for these 18 to 34 year
olds is their schedules and place in life, and the ways these interact with the media that
are available to them. Media that are relatively schedule-free fit more easily into the
irregular schedules of many 18 to 34 year olds and the narrow slices of time available to
others. The Web, recorded music, and certain types of television programming (e.g.,

channels with a relatively consistent format such as CNBC or MTV) fit flexibly into the
lifestyles of 18 to 34 year olds—they can access desired content at any time. Other
technologies such as personal video recorders promise to make all television
programming schedule-free.
    At a more fundamental level, it is a good time to ask if the media used by this current
generation of 18 to 34 year olds are changing core sensibilities. MTV Networks’ chief
research executive, Betsy Frank, has observed, "Young people have a unique way of
accessing and processing information and entertainment that is markedly different from
previous generations—selective, discriminating and impatient."8 How might this change
their appetites for specific content and ways of delivering content? One consequence is
their comfort level with the Web, which they perceive as a traditional medium that has
been around "a long time," rather than a new medium. A second consequence is their
comfort level with multi-tasking.
    Advertisers, naturally, are interested observers of these changes. It appears that the
message for advertisers is mixed. On the positive side, the group that participated in this
study were active consumers who wanted information about products. They also had
high exposure to a broad range of media, although the mix of media is shifting. Further,
they see and hear a lot of advertising, more than they admit when first questioned.
However, with so many media options at their fingertips, it is easy for 18 to 34 year olds
to switch media when they encounter advertising. Also, they do not accept the unwritten
agreement between advertisers and consumers from generations past that advertising pays
for content; this group pays a lot for content and they feel no obligation to advertisers.
For this reason, they expect and demand that advertising, in all its forms, be more
entertaining and directed to what they want to know about products.

  See Gale Metzger, "Young Consumers and Media," Know, Spring/Summer 2004, pp. 39-44.
  Knowledge Networks/SRI, How People Use TV, March, 2004.
  Stephen Baker, "Channeling The Future," Business Week, July 12, 2004, pp. 70-72.
  For a review of functional media analysis, see Harold Mendelsohn, Mass Entertainment. New Haven,
Conn: 1966.
  Leo Bogart, Press and Public: Who Reads What, Where, When and Why in American Newspapers.
Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 1981, pp. 106-110.
  Laura Forlano, "The Social Impact of Mobile Phones ," Marconi Foundation Newsletter, Summer, 2004.
  Marshall McLuhan, Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man. New York: McGraw Hill, 1964
  Betsy Frank, presentation at the Museum of Television and Radio - Los Angeles, July 13, 2004.


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