Generation Tech and Quarantine | Tech Usage Throughout the Pandemic

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Written by Nathan at 1st April 2021

Generation Tech and Quarantine

Generational tech through the pandemic

Key Takeaways

  • On average, screen time during the pandemic increased by nearly two hours per day.
  • 75.7% of respondents felt technology became more valuable during the pandemic.
  • 7 in 10 respondents experienced negative health effects after using technology.

Technology has become increasingly important in people’s lives since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. From staying connected during social distancing to working from home, the pandemic has forced us to become increasingly reliant on technology. Technology is even proving a gatekeeper to getting vaccinated with people who struggle to sign up online getting left out.

At a time when people are intensely reliant on screens to stay connected, we wanted to study the ways in which technology is shaping our lives, for better or worse. We surveyed over 1,000 people about their technology usage during the COVID-19 pandemic. Continue reading to see what we discovered.

Screen Time During COVID-19

People spent a lot more time in front of their screens during the COVID-19 pandemic than prior to the health crisis. Before the pandemic, people averaged 5.9 hours of screen time per day. During the pandemic, that average increased to 7.9 hours a day. Generation X reported the largest increase in average daily screen time with usage rising by 2.1 hours per day. Millennials weren’t far behind at an average of two hours more screen time per day. Baby boomers had the smallest change in screen time from their pre-pandemic norm with an average increase of 1.9 hours per day.

Interestingly, the pandemic appears to have rekindled people’s preferences for larger screens. Mobile app usage declined for Facebook, Netflix, and YouTube, while the website usage for each of these increased. This may be because now that more people are working from home, they don’t have to access their favorite social media or streaming services on their phones. That isn’t to say people stopped using apps during the pandemic.

Social media apps were the most-used apps since the start of the pandemic, with nearly 82% of respondents saying they’ve used a social media app since COVID-19’s onset. Productivity apps were the second most-used apps, with over 63% of respondents saying they used a productivity app during the pandemic, perhaps in an effort to combat the productivity drain that social media often is. Utility and games and entertainment apps were also used by nearly 60% of respondents. Less popular were news and information apps at under 50% of respondents and lifestyle apps at less than 45% of respondents.

Among social media apps, Facebook was the most popular during COVID. For productivity app users, Gmail was the most common app of choice. It was also the most used app across all generations. When respondents wanted entertainment, they turned to Netflix, and when they wanted news, they were most often on Google News. Spotify came in as the most commonly used lifestyle app. Utility apps had the most diverse usage, but Apple Health was the most common – used by about 7% of respondents.

That said, there was some app usage disparity among generations. For instance, while Gmail was the most used app overall, both baby boomers and Generation X reported using Facebook more often than Gmail. Only millennials said they were on Gmail more than any other app. Millennials used YouTube and Instagram more than Facebook, which may confirm theories that Facebook is losing sway among millennials and Gen Zers.

Technology: Friend or Foe?

There’s been much debate about whether technology is good or bad for us, but our respondents overwhelmingly felt positively toward technology. Nearly 83% of respondents said they had a positive sentiment toward technology, even after the potential tech overload of the pandemic. Over three-quarters of respondents said they felt technology became even more valuable during the health crisis. This was true across generations, but most commonly among baby boomers and Generation X.

People used their computers the most during quarantine, with smartphones close behind. Despite concerns that people may be watching too much TV during the coronavirus pandemic, our respondents said they used their televisions less than their computers or smartphones in the past year. They spent even less time on their tablets and smart watches, and e-readers were the least popular device of them all.

When we broke the most popular tech of COVID-19 down further, some clear winners emerged. For instance, Apple was by far the most popular phone brand, especially among millennials and Generation X. Specifically, millennials and Gen Xers had a far stronger preference for iPhones (47%) than did baby boomers (33%).

Despite Apple’s dominance in the cellphone arena, Windows is still the most popular computer operating system. Nearly two-thirds of respondents said they used Windows, compared to less than 18% of Mac users. Here, baby boomers showed the strongest preference for Windows (70%), compared to less than 13% who preferred Macs. Millennials were a little more divided with less than 60% preferring Windows and almost 25% preferring Macs.

Social media was the most divided category of tech. While Facebook won out among our respondents, it did so by a far narrower margin than other category winners. Baby boomers were the most likely to prefer Facebook to Instagram – the overall least popular social media platform during COVID. Millennials, on the other hand, said they preferred Instagram to Facebook.

Befriending Technology

The coronavirus pandemic shone a light on the need for companies and employees to upskill their technology comfort level. And many people rose to the challenge. Nearly 60% of respondents said they’ve learned more about technology since the pandemic started, leading to a rise in e-learning tool usage.

We compared people’s comfort levels with various skills to how important they felt it was to know the skill. By and large, replying to emails won out. Replying to email was voted both the most important technical skill to know and the one people are the most comfortable with. After that, the results were a bit more mixed. While setting up your computer out of the box was viewed as the second most important skill to know, it had only the fourth highest comfort level. People were more comfortable updating their phone and streaming Netflix or Hulu on their TVs than they were setting up a computer, even though both updating phones and streaming videos were considered less important skills to have. Similarly, while over 85% of respondents said setting up a Wi-Fi router is an important skill, only around 75% of them were comfortable with their ability to do so. This can pose a problem when the internet is the first place 70% of respondents turn for tech help.

Each generation had different tech struggles, too. Generation X had the most trouble setting up their Wi-Fi routers, while baby boomers and millennials found connecting their laptop to their TV to be the biggest challenge. Millennials found Wi-Fi routers nearly as challenging as connecting their laptop to their TV and equally as challenging as setting up their computer out of the box. All of the generations agree that streaming Netflix and Hulu on their TV was the least challenging tech struggle.

The Tech Health Impact

Technology can certainly be a power for good, from the workplace to the classroom, but we can’t ignore the potential negative health impacts of too much technology use. Too much technology can be a bad thing, and almost 42% of our respondents said they’ve felt “tech’d out.” Generation X was the most likely to have felt this technology overload.

Some of the negative health effects increased tech usage appeared to cause included eyestrain, bad posture, anxiety, feelings of isolation, and insomnia. Seven in 10 of our respondents said they’ve experienced such negative health effects after using technology, with the most frequent being eyestrain (43%). Meanwhile nearly one-third said they felt like their posture had been negatively impacted by their tech usage.

Technology has also had a negative emotional impact on many people. Anxiety is the most common negative mental health effect of technology reported by 24% of respondents. More than 1 in 5 said their technology use had led to feelings of isolation, and nearly the same number reported technology caused insomnia, something screen time is known to cause.

Similarly, 74% said they’ve experienced screen fatigue. In an effort to combat this, people are mostly trying to take breaks from their screens. Baby boomers are the most likely to use breaks to reduce screen fatigue. They were also the least likely to report experiencing screen fatigue, which may suggest taking breaks is an effective strategy.

People also adjusted the screen brightness to reduce screen fatigue, but this is a much less popular strategy than just taking breaks. Even fewer have tried limiting screen time overall or adjusting the room lighting. Some have tried using dark mode, where one changes the display setting on a screen to show the background as dark and the text as light. While the idea behind this is to reduce the light exposure from your device, it’s not always better for eyestrain, as the text can appear washed out leading to more eye fatigue.

The least common strategy to combat screen fatigue overall was eyedrops, except among baby boomers. Boomers actually preferred eyedrops to dark mode or blue light glasses – those with special lenses designed to filter out the blue light emitted from digital screens. This is probably for the best, given blue light isn’t actually the culprit behind many eye issues, so blue light glasses may not be a great solution for screen fatigue. That said, there are ways to handle screen time during the pandemic in a healthy manner, such as having at least one screen-free meal a day and doing a daily email detox.

Staying Connected Inside and Out

With the COVID-19 pandemic came a surge in screen usage. People spent more time on their computers and smartphones – using these devices even more than their televisions. They turned to technology the most to stay connected with social media platforms like Facebook. This increased reliance on technology increased tech’s value in most people’s eyes, but it also presented some health concerns. Eyestrain and screen fatigue plagued many this past year. And yet, technology and the internet is an essential part of Americans’ lives, especially when staying safe often means staying home.

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Methodology and Limitations

We collected responses from 1,003 respondents using Amazon MTurk and Prolific. Of the 1,003 respondents surveyed, 45.3% were female, 54.6% were male, and 0.1% identified as nonbinary. Additionally, the average age of respondents was 45.5 with a standard deviation of 12.5 years.

The main limitation of this study is the reliance on self-report, which is faced with several issues such as, but not limited to, attribution, exaggeration, recency bias, and telescoping.

Fair Use Statement

We hope you found this information on tech use amid the pandemic impactful. If you think someone else could benefit from reading it, too, please feel free to share but only for noncommercial purposes. We also ask that you include a link back to this page so that everyone can appreciate the findings in their entirety. This also helps our creative team get credit for their hard work. Thank you.