Life in the Fast Lane: Digital Media Use and Daily Activity Rhythm across the Last 20 Years


Student thesis: Doctoral Thesis

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Award date15 Jul 2020


Postmodern transformation regards the de-standardization and differentiation occurs in people’s lives. Social acceleration theory further regards acceleration as the crucial time characteristic of postmodernity. Simultaneously, in modern life, a dilemma exists between time abundance from technology developments and time scarcity in life organization rhythms. Digital media, an indispensable technology in postmodern daily life, has drastically changed its modality and functions throughout the years and largely contributed to social acceleration.

However, both digital media practices and the postmodern transformation of the practices have not been fully explained and depicted. Systematic and empirical examinations of whether and how technological acceleration affects the pace of life are also lacking. To address this gap, these series of studies take temporal rhythm and digital media use practices as the penetration point. Using diary surveys and mobile phone log data from four national representative samples over a 20-year period, the studies illustrate the post-modernization trend of daily practices (de-standardization, differentiation, diversification, individualization, and fragmentation), the role of media technologies, and the psychological consequences of both media use and the disorganization of daily activities.

Study 1 described the temporal rhythms of digital media use and tested its postmodern transformation over the years. An annual time-use survey of U.S. from 2003 to 2018 was utilized to address these questions, as was a sequence perspective to view the routine of digital media both at the holistic (whole sequence) and local (temporal characteristics) level. After clustering out five typical rhythms, the investigation on yearly changes found that, at the holistic level, predominant media use rhythms remain stable. In comparison, at the local level, the use of digital media has become diversified and fragmented, and different social groups have increasingly differentiated their temporal allocation of digital media in recent years. This confirms the postmodern transformation of daily life.

Study 2 extended the previous study by adding evidence from mobile phone behaviors and investigating the within-person stability of media use rhythms. Using the behavioral logs from mobile phone application use in Hong Kong, the results confirmed the rhythm pattern found in Study 1. The weekly comparison over a five-month period further verified media practices’ stability.

Study 3 explored the effects of technology acceleration on people’s daily rhythm. Matching two sample groups from 2000 and 2015 in U.K., this work tested how the accessibility and actual use of digital media alter daily life organizations, and whether technology acceleration (from the home computer era to the smartphone era) has intensified this influence. The results showed that (1) in the home computer era, media decreased daily activity variety and fragmentation and increased alone time, while in the smartphone era, media increased life variety and fragmentation and moderated total alone time; (2) home computers had a strong effect in the home computer era but a weak effect in the smartphone era, and vice versa; and (3) actual media use time has a more direct effect on daily activity allocation. These results indicate that media and media acceleration intensify the postmodern transformation.

Study 4 linked media and daily life allocations with subjective well-being. Using a national representative survey of U.S. from 2016, this study examined how the disorganization of daily routines caused by the accessibility and actual use of digital media has led to subjective maladaptation. The path model showed that increased accessibility to mobile phones heightened the disorganization of daily routine, with the disorganization of daily routine reducing well-being in turn through perceived control on time.
These studies illustrate the postmodern transformation of daily rhythm and digital media’s substantial role in this process. They also highlight the role of sequence and practice perspective in examining the social transformations.

    Research areas

  • media effect, temporal rhythm, daily practices, sequence analysis, historical transformations