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[By MC Editor JC Lupis] Nielsen recently released its latest Comparable Metrics report [download page], a quarterly look at device and media usage trends across various demographic groups. Upon review of the latest report, one statistic caught our eye: for the first time in Q3, Millennials (18-34) as a group spent more time using smartphones (app + web) than watching traditional TV.

It seems inevitable that such a milestone would be reached, given the seemingly endless growth in smartphone use (although app use may be peaking) and continuing decline in traditional TV viewing – at least among this age group. Yet it took a surge in smartphone internet use in Q3 (a 21% quarter-over-quarter and 48% year-over-year jump) to get there. We’re going to brief you on that surge shortly. TV time, by contrast, remained quite steady, down only a little more than 4% year-over-year.

What are the actual numbers? In Q3, according to the study, Millennials as a cohesive block spent 1084 minutes during the average week (or about 18 hours a week) accessing the web and apps on smartphones versus 1059 minutes a week (or slightly less than 18 hours a week) watching TV. The gap was a paltry 25 minutes a week (or about 3-4 minutes a day), but it lets us go with a catchy headline, so…

It’s worth remembering that there are two elements that factor into the overall time spent equation: the number of users, and the amount of time spent by users. Let’s unpack these for a moment, as they provide additional context into the trends.

In Q3 (the latest report available), 9 in 10 Millennials (90.8%) used smartphone web and apps during a typical week versus roughly three-quarters (75.8%) who watched TV. In other words, in terms of reach, smartphone web and apps has a significant leg up on traditional TV. (In this case, traditional TV is live + time-shifted viewing.)

Turning to time spent per user, the study reveals that the subset of Millennials who used smartphone apps and web during a typical week spent an average of 1,194 minutes doing so. That equates to almost 20 hours a week among these users.

Traditional TV viewers, for their part, spent 1,211 minutes per week watching Game of Thrones (well, probably not just that). If you’re keeping count, that’s slightly more than 20 hours a week. Slight advantage: TV.

Let’s recap: more Millennials used smartphone apps and web during a typical week in Q3 than watched traditional TV. But, those watching TV spent slightly more time doing so than those using their smartphones to access Snapchat (couldn’t help it).

When you combine those two factors, smartphones come out on top. But that then comes with the caveat that Millennial TV viewers are still pretty heavily into this activity.

Since we’re looking at device users, what are the trends there? Earlier, we noted that smartphone app + web time jumped markedly in Q3: was that a result of greater reach, or time spent per user? (Or both?)

Interestingly, it was more about greater time spent per user than reach. Both increased, but the relative growth in time spent per user on a quarter-over-quarter basis was significantly larger than the relative rise in smartphone penetration.

And now we get to the somewhat underwhelming part: it seems as though some portion (and maybe a large portion) of the jump in smartphone app and web use was due to a methodology change implemented in Q3. Yes, it’s true – we actually read the fine print!

Specifically, “Nielsen implemented a crediting enhancement to improve the reporting of mobile usage on iOS devices in March 2016 and Android devices in August 2016. A legacy crediting rule that capped usage at 30 minutes was removed, so now if a panelist uses an app or visits a website for more than 30 minutes at a time the entire duration is now credited towards the app or website.”

We don’t know how much of an affect that reporting change had, but we can assume it was fairly substantial, judging by the trendline you see in the chart above.

Now, remember that this change went into effect for iOS devices in Q1 2016. Revisit the chart above and you’ll see that there was also a sizable jump in smartphone app + web time in Q1 2016. Here’s what Nielsen said at the time in the Q1 report: “Removal of the 30 minute cap did result in some increase in time spent but most can be attributed to gains in users and the organic growth of app and web usage, not the change in the rule.”

This latest release doesn’t comment on the impact of the rule change. Does that mean that the milestone could have been reached at an earlier point than Q3? It’s certainly possible, but the 25-minute gap in weekly minutes is so small (and the trends still headed in opposite directions) that we’re probably safe in saying that the milestone was reached in Q3. No clickbait here…!

As for TV, both reach and time spent per viewer decreased in Q3 on a quarter-over-quarter basis, but the impact was much smaller. On a year-over-year basis, though, it’s worth noting that TV time per viewer declined by more than one hour per week.

Let’s wrap it up with the highlights of our analysis – all data pertaining to Q3:

1. As an overall (and admittedly large) group, Millennials as of about 6 or more months ago spend more time accessing the web and apps on smartphones than they do watching traditional TV.

2. This milestone is largely the result of smartphone app + web time jumping in Q3, a change that owed in some (possibly large) part to a methodology change.

3. A considerably larger share of Millennials access the web and apps on smartphones than watch traditional TV.

4. But, for the time being (and likely not for long), Millennial TV viewers spend slightly more time in front of the big screen than smartphone app + web users do in front of the smaller screen.

For those of you interested in the rise of mobile, check out our Mobile Milestones 2016 Brief, which highlighted 9 key marks set last year.

For high-quality, proprietary data on media audiences across age groups, see our Media Audience Demographics report.

About the Data: Nielsen notes in its study that:

“Live+DVR/Time-shifted TV includes Live usage plus any playback viewing within the measurement period. DVR/Time-shifted TV is playback primarily on a DVR but includes playback from video on demand, DVD recorders, server based DVR’s and services like Start Over.”

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