At a Super Bowl party next Sunday, Sacramentan Chris Pierson will be getting in some alone time. And he'll be doing so while hanging out with 30 or so friends, watching the game.
The alone time will happen when Pierson falls into the digital world, shifting his focus from TV screen to smartphone.
The behavior will seem anti-social to some, but normal to a growing number of viewers, given that a 2012 Google study found that 77 percent of the time people are watching TV, they are also using another device. To communications experts, this is part of a curious trend where adults mimic the childlike state called "parallel play."
Next Sunday's Super Bowl is poised to be the year's most-watched TV show. Last year 111 million tuned in, the third straight year it took top viewership honors. And with the rise of the smartphone and tablets, it stands to reason that millions will be devoting more attention to their digital devices than ever before.
A recent Nielsen Inc. report suggests a fragmentation of audience attention is well under way. The 2012 Social Media Report found that 41 percent of tablet owners and 38 percent of smartphone users now use their device daily while watching television (part of a phenomenon known as "social TV," as many users are socializing on networks such as Twitter or Facebook while they watch).
On Super Bowl Sunday, Pierson, 40, will be one of them. He will do so while attending a traditional and long-standing Super Bowl party in Sacramento. He won't be sitting with eyes riveted to the TV screen. Instead, he will be dividing time among television, social interaction with friends and his smartphone.
In some cases, it will be the smartphone that gets the most attention.
"A lot of that has to do with certain fantasy football leagues that I'm in," said Pierson, a claims processing supervisor at Delta Dental. "On a normal Sunday, when there are 13 or more games going on, I'm kind of locked into using my smartphone, sometimes for about 10 hours straight. It can be exhausting."
Not only will Pierson be checking stats, he also will be group-texting with his father and brother, and with friends who could not make the Super Bowl party.
In essence, Pierson will be living in two worlds physical and digital simultaneously.
That digital realm, where the mind and fingers are focused on a device, harkens back to a state of child's "play," says Clifford Nass, professor of communications at Stanford University and an authority on human-computer interaction.
"We see this kind of behavior in kids called 'parallel playing,' where little kids 2 years old play next to each other, but do not interact," said Nass.
It's not hard to imagine two people at a Super Bowl party beside each other checking their devices, with nary a word between them.
"It's ironic people will be tweeting about what's happening during the Super Bowl and essentially not paying attention to what's happening to the game," Nass said.
People are now doing more sequential screening shifting from one device to another. In the 2012 Google study, it was found that 90 percent of device users used multiple screens sequentially to accomplish a task over time, such as making a purchase or planning a trip. Smartphones were, typically, where that journey began.
The new behavior is forcing media producers to change how and in what form content and advertising are offered on screen.
"The goal of entertainment was that it would transport you to another place and another time, but when people are multitasking that's not happening anymore," said Nass. "Now people are at two places at once they're no longer immersed."
The result is that more repetition is being written into advertising and television shows, Nass said.
In Pierson's case, he blames his simultaneous usage on his first iPhone purchase 18 months ago.
"Before the cellphone, I used to have to run to my computer and check stats because the computer was in a different room," said Pierson. "But now with the phone it's just too easy to sit and check it all the time."
He said the iPhone has rendered his computer a lonely device used mostly for printing purposes.
Pierson, whose wife watches TV frequently while using her tablet to play Solitaire, realizes checking his iPhone may not be the most polite behavior.
"From a social aspect I don't think it's necessarily a good thing," he said. "I try not to pull it out in social situations. I think it's rude if people are on the phone all the time, especially when they're right in front of me."
But if that happens, he may be texting about it.