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How Does Time Use Data Illuminate Important Social Patterns?

Liana Sayer starts a new Time Use Lab at the University of Maryland

Liana Sayer is the new Director of the University of Maryland Time Use Lab, which conducts innovative research on time use in under-researched populations and investigates new methods and tools for time use data collection. The Time Use Lab currently focuses on three main projects.

In the fall of 2013, the Time Use Lab will begin recruiting participants for a small pilot study to learn about the possible benefits of using smartphones to collect time use data. Traditionally, handwritten diaries have served as the main medium for recording time use data, but this method is burdensome and often inexact with regards to the place where an activity occurred. Smartphones may offer a more streamlined way to record time use data, and GPS technology could help researchers understand the positive and negative effects of the physical environment where an activity takes place. Participants in the pilot study will represent a broad cross-section of the population in order to find out whether there are unique considerations among different demographic groups.

The Time Use Lab will also study patterns of time use among immigrants in the Baltimore and Washington, DC area. The study will combine qualitative and quantitative methods in order to learn how patterns of time use reflect changing family and social dynamics as immigrants adapt to life in their new communities. Dr. Sayer hypothesizes that the results will show interesting differences in time use depending on immigrants’ countries of origin, and on their varying educational and socioeconomic status in the United States.

The third project of the Time Use Lab focuses on how patterns of time use change over time among children and adolescents. According to child development literature, some types of time use are more beneficial to children than others. The goal of the project is to find out how children’s time is divided between beneficial or enriching activities like schoolwork or sports and undirected activities such as “hanging out” or watching TV. Time use data will help Sayer and her colleagues learn more about the kinds of activities that children and adolescents engage in, whether they keep the same patterns over time, and how children’s time use affects their transition to adulthood. Researchers will also look at whether and how children’s time use differs according to gender and socioeconomic status.

Dr. Sayer cautions that while time use data can reveal a great deal about what people are doing, it cannot explain why. For example, if a child spends a large amount of time watching television, it might be tempting to assume that this pattern reflects apathy on the part of the parents. But in neighborhoods with high crime rates, parents may be using TV as a way to keep their children indoors in a safe environment. Time use data only becomes meaningful when understood within its full social context.

Read Dr. Sayer’s bio