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Social distancing study: How are people spending their time?

Social distancing study: How are people spending their time?

In a March 20 briefing regarding the coronavirus pandemic, the World Health Organization announced that it preferred the term “physical distancing” over "social distancing." The reason? The former sounds too much like social isolation and implies a concerning lack of connection. Now more than ever, mental and physical well-being are entwined. Taking time for yourself—for hobbies and good deeds and yes, even Netflix—is key. 

But “free time” takes on a whole new meaning in the context of a pandemic. So how are people finding ways to connect with others or experience new things? Is relaxing during a crisis actually possible? Has everyone and their mother really watched Tiger King?

To find out, we used SurveyMonkey Audience to ask 600 Americans what they’ve been up to during the coronavirus crisis. The majority of respondents (83%) said they’re following a stay-at-home order; of those who said they aren’t staying home, 12.5% said it was because they were essential workers. Here are the top 8 takeaways: 

1. Relaxation isn’t impossible—but activities vary by age.

Prioritizing R&R may be easier said than done right now, but we still wanted to know: what has helped people relax during this time? Reading, family, music, and exercise were a few of the top responses to this open-ended question:


But then we dug a little deeper into the demographics. None of the respondents ages 18-29 used any words related to faith (e.g. bible, prayer, church, God) and only 5% mentioned adult substances like wine, alcohol, nicotine, and marijuana. In comparison, 11% of respondents over the age of 60 used faith-related words and 13% cited adult substances. 

2. More than half of people are turning to television. 

The streaming entertainment industry is booming under stay-at-home orders and Netflix recently announced that it has added 15.8 million subscribers. So does that mean people are glued to their television? Well, not quite: 62% of respondents said they either somewhat or strongly agree that they are spending more time streaming TV. And of those viewers, 43% say they’re mostly watching new shows, while 18% are mostly rewatching shows they’ve already seen. 

3. But not everyone has seen Tiger King

Bears, beets, and Battlestar Galactica vs. murder, mayhem, and madness? While it may seem like Tiger King was the show seen ‘round the world, just 38% of respondents said they’d watched it. In contrast, 35% said they’d been watching The Office.


4. Listening to music beats baking

Between the popularity of #quarantinebaking and #sourdough on social media, it seemed like baking was the leading way to pass time during the pandemic. But it turns out listening to music has been the top hobby (66%), followed by reading (57%). Playing video games and exercising tied in popularity (47%) and, despite the hardy hashtags, baking trailed behind (42%). 

  • Gender divide: 53% of female respondents said they’d spent time baking, versus 30% of male respondents.
  • Generation gap: 66% of people ages 18-29 have spent time playing video games, compared to 25% of adults over 60 years old.

The coronavirus crisis and shelter-in-place restrictions have led to a lot of new virtual experiences. The most popular across all income brackets and age groups was online games/virtual board games. For respondents ages 18-29, the second most popular experience was streaming parties; for people over 60, it was virtual tours of museums, aquariums, or landmarks. 

Need a haircut? Half of women said they’d considered cutting their own hair or someone else’s since the pandemic began, compared to 35% of men. Women were also more inclined to be adventurous in the kitchen; 54% said they’d considered trying an unfamiliar recipe, while 40% of men said the same.

They say that in helping others, you help yourself. So we were curious about the good deeds being conducted during this time. Nearly half of respondents (48%) said they’d patronized a local restaurant. However, this tendency for takeout varied by age: 63% of respondents over age 60, versus 34% of those ages 18-29. 


Overall, the other winning good deeds were running an errand for someone unable to do so (36%) and reaching out to someone living alone (36%). Taking another look at demographics, we found that: 

  • 46% of respondents ages 18-29 said they’ve taught someone how to use video conferencing or other technology, compared to 17% of respondents over 60.
  • 57% of people with an annual household income over $175k have donated money to a nonprofit or charity, compared to 27% of those with an income under $25k.

We asked respondents if there was anyone they were talking to more as a result of the coronavirus crisis. Friends and partners were cited the most (41% and 40%, respectively) and coworkers the least (16%). Though not everyone who participated in our survey may have siblings, children, parents, etc., it is interesting to see that people may be serious about opting for physical rather than social distancing.

Not everyone has the time or luxury to try new things, dive into hobbies, or binge TV shows right now. However, by asking how people are spending their downtime during the coronavirus pandemic, we can get a better understanding of how they're managing to have fun during hard times.