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Online Video Sites Double Popularity in 2007

Some wonder whether the growth of video-sharing sites like YouTube is related to a decline in Americans' reading skill.

Online video sites like YouTube have become significantly more popular during the past year.

Almost half of online adults (48%) said they have visited video Web sites, according to a report issued Wednesday by the Pew Internet & American Life Project. A year ago, that figure stood at 33%. That reflects 45% year-to-year growth.

Some 15% of respondents said they had used a video-sharing site only a day before taking the survey, up from 8% who said as much a year earlier, an increase of almost 50%.

Survey data was drawn from 2,054 Americans, age 18 and older, between Oct. 24 and Dec. 2. Of those, 1,359 Internet users responded to the video-sharing question.

"The dramatic growth in the population using video-sharing sites is tied at least in part to the popularity of such sites among men, younger adults (under 30), and college graduates," the report says. "Nearly a third of wired young adults (30%) watch video on a site like YouTube on a typical day and fully a fifth of online men (20%) do the same."

The report also notes that other demographic groups show a surge in online video site usage, just not as much.

The Pew report arrives just two months after the National Endowment for the Arts published "To Read or Not to Read: A Question of National Consequence," a report that documents the continuation of a decades-long decline in reading skill and reading frequency in America. The NEA report found that among Americans ages 18 to 24, almost half read no books for pleasure all year.

As the NEA sees it, this trend has negative consequences. "Whatever the benefits of newer electronic media, they provide no measurable substitute for the intellectual and personal development initiated and sustained by frequent reading," the NEA report says, noting that reading books contributes not only to intellectual development, but also to civic participation and physical health.

Then again, it's hard to find a product not associated with health benefits today: chocolate, wine, and the Nintendo Wii all have supposed cardiovascular benefits. Video games improve mental acuity and coordination, or so some studies suggest. YouTube hosts political debates, arguably making it a path to civic awareness, if not enlightenment.

Lee Rainie, founding director of the Pew Internet & American Life Project and author of the Pew video study, said his organization had not attempted to correlate the long-term decline in reading with the recent rise in online video viewing. "My guess is we would find a reverse correlation because the people posting material online have the same demographic as avid readers," he said. "My guess would be that this isn't the cause of the downslide in reading."

While the group Rainie identifies as likely avid readers -- those with some college education or college graduates -- show a larger growth in affinity for online video than other groups, it's not clear that education inoculates against dwindling literacy. According to the NEA report, "Average reading scores have declined in adults of virtually all education levels. ... Even among college graduates, reading proficiency has declined at a 20%-23% rate" between 1992 and 2003.

In the absence of a more definite study, who knows. Perhaps we're reading less because we have more media options. Perhaps swelling lack of interest in Madame Bovary can be treated by repeated exposure to YouTube classics like Obama Girl.

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