Time for digital media but no time for school? Comparing the leisure activities of adolescents of Generation X, Y and Z


Digitization has an enormous impact on how young people spend their time outside of school. The present study examines the types of media they use in their free time and how such media use affects their performance at school.

Article by Adriana Sofia Palloks (✉ adriana.palloks@univie.ac.at)

This study uses diary data from German adolescents born in three cross-generational time periods: 1991-92 (Gen X), 2001-02 (Gen Y), and 2012-13 (Gen Z), which were collected by the German Federal Statistical Office. Participants, aged 12-18, documented their daily media use at set intervals. The media that adolescents used in their free time was examined and whether it limited their study and homework time was assessed.

How do digitization and the emergence of new media genres affect the way young people spend their leisure time? The "members" of Generations X, Y, and Z differ not only in terms of the decade in which they were born, but also in terms of their media use or what media were available when they were adolescents. While owning a PC or video game console was still relatively rare for Generation X adolescents (born between 1965-1980), these devices increasingly moved into the households of Generation Y adolescents (1981-1994) and playing videogames became the second most popular leisure medium. For Gen Z youth (1995-2010), owning a smartphone or video game console is now a matter of course. Critics fear: The increasing use of digital media is becoming a burden on study and homework time and can have a negative impact on adolescents' school performance.

Adolescents from three generations documented their everyday use of media

The communication researchers addressed the question of how the advent of digital media affects the lives of young people from a cross-generational perspective. Using data from the German Federal Statistical Office, they examined, "how much time young people spent on average each day using various media as well as doing homework or studying in 1991-92, 2001-02 and 2012-13", explains study co-author Anne Reinhardt.

Each wave of the survey included approximately 1,300 students, ages 12-18, who recorded their daily media use or activities in a diary over the span of three days. In the diaries, the days of the week were divided into 5-10 minute segments. This way, adolescents could describe what they mainly did (main activity) in each time period. In addition, they could note secondary activities that took place alongside their main activity (such as meeting friends and listening to the radio on the side). The information from the diaries was categorized according to the type of activity, such as leisure time, work time, media time, etc., and analyzed using the data analysis software R.

An increase in free time allows more time for media consumption

The diary data revealed that young people of Generation Z have more leisure time at their disposal than the generations before them, which means that their use of digital media has also increased. Despite their increased media consumption, the amount of time devoted to studying and homework has not decreased: "We were able to show that despite the increasing popularity of gaming over the observed 20-year period, its influence on school-related time remained constant and relatively weak. This could be evidence that teenagers of younger generations have developed self-control mechanisms to deal with their digitized environment", Reinhardt states.

The specific use of media per generation

The three generations can be distinguished by the media they used in everyday life. While young people of Generation X rarely used a home computer, video games were the second most common leisure medium among young people of Gen Y. Among Gen Z, online communication (chatting) has become one of the most significant activities. Although new digital media emerged in the 20 years between the surveys, television still dominates the leisure activities of young people in the three generations studied.

Research outlook: Social media

Anne Reinhardt concludes the results with a crucial look at the effect of social media: "During the last survey wave in 2012 (Gen Z), a very weak but negative influence on homework and study time was measured. Considering the social media use of young people today, this finding raises the question of whether adolescents have either developed advanced self-control mechanisms similar to gaming or if social media has become an increasingly large time killer for concentrated learning. Therefore, we eagerly await the new data from the Federal Statistical Office, which will hopefully be published by 2025."

Publication details

Reinhardt, A., Wilhelm, C., & Mayen, S. (2023). Time for digital media but no time for school? An investigation of displacement effects among adolescents of gen X, Y, and Z. Psychology of Popular Media. Advance online publication. doi:10.1037/ppm0000479

Anne Reinhardt is an University Assistant (postdoctoral researcher) in the Department of Communication of the University of Vienna since October 2021.


Claudia Wilhelm is a Tenure Track Professor of Media & Intersectionality in the Department of Communication of the University of Vienna.


Sophie Mayen is an University Assistant (predoctoral researcher) in the Department of Communication of the University of Vienna since October 2021.