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What Does the Next 20 Years of Internet Usage Look Like?

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The latest Pew research related to US internet usage, device ownership and social media usage revealed very little activity. The most notable takeaway is that, compared to 2016, growth in these areas has stalled. The only exception being a 5% decline in desktop/laptop ownership and usage from 78% to 73%, and a 2% increase in tablet ownership from 51% to 53%.

eMarketer said that roughly 6 hours and 20 minutes of time each day will be spent with digital media (desktop/laptop, mobile, connected devices) in 2018. This represents over half (52%) of all media time spent. Digital video captures 1 hour and 26 minutes of this time, and is accounting for seven of the additional 16 minutes spent with digital in 2018 vs. 2017.

The highly referenced “Internet Trends Report 2018” from Mary Meeker continues to reveal that ad budgets for the last few years have not optimized based on time spent, with print media capturing a disproportionate amount of add spend compared to time spent. But many argue that just because a media channel accounts for more time spent, doesn’t mean ad dollars are necessarily best served there.

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When we take a step back, particularly looking at the usage growth over the last 20-some years (above), is this simply the new normal? Will digital continue to grow in time spent and reach ubiquity, leaving marketers almost solely focused on the digital space? Or can/will the Internet see declines as consumers embrace more real-world experiences?

One of the most compelling shifts in consumer behavior that might help answer these questions is the growth in the “experience economy” (i.e. escape rooms, concerts, axe throwing bars, etc.). Millennials, who are expected to become the largest living adult generation in the US by 2019, are driving this embrace of experiences with 78% telling Eventbrite that they would rather spend on an experience than a product or thing.

Marketers and brands appear to be mirroring this, focusing on improving customer experiences (CX) through a mixture of online and offline tactics. Purchasing products and services is an experience in its own way and brands are trying to optimize for the increasingly multi-channel consumer journey.

But the motivation and psychology behind this interest in “experiences” needs to be unpacked. According to an article on Psychology Today which explores this topic:

People who prefer to buy life experiences report a number of positive mental health outcomes, including greater empathy, more engagement with nature, decreased anxiety, and less personal distress. Importantly, experiential consumers experience more psychological need satisfaction, and because of their consumer habits, their spending choices result in them being happier with their life.

From the digital perspective, studies have found that too much use of digital media, particularly social media, has been linked to some types of depression. Additionally, there is an addictive aspect to devices and digital media, with many people within arm’s reach of devices at all times. A study from Swansea University found that some people experienced a sort of withdrawal when stopping use of the Internet.

Also working against digital usage are major concerns about data privacy. With a number of major data breaches reported over the last few years, there is a level of distrust or uncertainty that consumers have for the broader digital ecosystem.

On the other hand, there is no denying the ease and efficiency with which someone can find information that aids in both personal and professional development. From a commerce perspective, the Internet has made it extremely easy to find, review and select businesses to purchase from. This utility has tremendous value that will keep people utilizing the Internet for generations to come.

Given the emphasis on experiences and the sometimes-negative consequences of too much digital media usage, it isn’t unreasonable to expect a decline in time spent on digital platforms in the next 20-years. As more and more studies point to the risks of too much screen time and too little real-world interactions, people will likely shift behaviors accordingly for the sake of mental and physical well-being.

Internet usage, still in its relative infancy compared to other major technological and social shifts in human history, will likely look very different in 20 years than it does now. While much time is spent online in a social capacity, the need for in-person, human interactions is something hard-wired into the human experience. With the new-found desire for experiences, the decline in digital usage may be beginning, but it will likely be a slow shift.

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