By NICK WINGFIELD and PUI-WING TAM
It's been decades since Americans had this much time on their hands and -- thanks to the Web -- never have there been so many opportunities to burn it.
In November, Julia Otto was headed to her first day on a new job, car keys in hand, as an administrative assistant with a New Orleans construction company when her phone rang. Her position was eliminated before she even started.
Now, when she's not sending out resumes or doing household chores, the 43-year-old spends several hours a day playing games. Her favorite is an adventure-puzzle game called "Mystery Case Files: Return to Ravenhearst," where she hunts for clues inside a spooky mansion to unlock a mystery. She spends about $7 a month playing games on the Big Fish Games site.
"They're an affordable way to help forget," says Ms. Otto. "It's not soap operas and chocolate."
As Americans -- grappling with layoffs and grim economic news -- try to find ways to fill their time, the Internet is helping people with job searches. But the medium is performing another important role: a social anesthesia that distracts people from the stress of unemployment.
During the Great Depression, many unemployed workers spent entire afternoons watching films at movie houses like this in Eugene, Ore.
As the nation grapples with rising layoffs and grim economic news, more and more people are escaping by goofing off online. Are you spending extra time on the Internet lately? Share your views in Journal Community.
Internet games, gambling and other forms of online entertainment have seen significant surges in use in the several months since the economic downturn deepened. Social-networking services like Facebook, blogs and discussion forums -- all well-known time sinks even during good times -- are also seeing strong growth. Some purveyors of online entertainment say business has never been so good for them.
Robert Kraut, a professor of social psychology and human computer interaction at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, says games and other forms of entertainment can provide escape for people steeped in anxieties about the economy. "There's evidence these distractions have a psychological benefit because they prevent a downward spiral of rumination," says Dr. Kraut.
The trend echoes the escape mechanisms that people turned to during the Great Depression in the 1930s. At the time, people paid a nickel to spend entire afternoons and evenings watching films featuring Charlie Chaplin and others, cartoons and newsreels, says Gary Handman, a director at the Media Resources Center at the University of California at Berkeley.
Mr. Handman believes the Internet is assuming a similar role now in part because of how relatively inexpensive it is compared with, say, a $10 movie ticket that buys only a couple of hours of entertainment, even though movie attendance is strong. "The Internet, in particular, has blown everything else away," Mr. Handman says. "People are getting their entertainment for free wherever they can."
Many online entertainment categories were seeing steady growth even before the economy took a turn for the worse a few months ago, and public interest in the November U.S. presidential election also drove traffic to online video, social networking and other sites. But the sudden rise in usage in some online categories at the end of the year stands out from past growth trends.
The number of visitors to online game sites jumped 29.9% during the fourth quarter of last year, compared with a 0.3% decline during the same period the prior year, according to comScore Inc. Traffic on Internet gambling sites soared 28.6% over the holiday quarter, compared with a 26.9% decline over the holiday season the previous year, comScore says.
For Big Fish Games, the company behind "Mystery Case Files," business has never been better. Revenue jumped 70% to $85 million last year, and the best sales in its seven-year history occurred in January, says Jeremy Lewis, the Seattle company's chief executive. In January, Big Fish's membership grew 110% faster than in September, the month before the economy worsened -- an unusual development since its subscriptions typically grow at a steady rate throughout the year, says Mr. Lewis. The company currently has more than 30 job openings.
People are escaping online in other ways too. On Monday, the popular celebrity gossip hound who goes by the name Perez Hilton said in a post on his Web site that January was his biggest month ever for traffic. "When times are tough, you turn to PerezHilton.com!" he wrote. Last week, the online movie rental service Netflix Inc. said its number of subscribers grew 26% over the holidays to 9.4 million, compared with 18% in the same period the year before.
Monica Ross-Williams, 38, gravitated to a different form of online escape late last year. Ms. Ross-Williams, who launched a janitorial services business in Canton, Mich., last June, remains underemployed because of the slow economy, scratching out just nine hours of work a week for three clients. With so much time to fill, she joined professional social-networking site LinkedIn in October to start connecting with business contacts.
In December, she also joined social networking site Facebook and started reconnecting with high-school friends. Last month, Ms. Ross-Williams also jumped at the chance to become the online moderator of a small business Web forum where she spends about two hours a day posting notes and cleaning up comments by other users. "Time flies now," she says.
There's precedent for a surge in online usage during traumatic times. Past studies have shown bursts of Internet activity around events such as the 9/11 terrorist attacks, when many people went online to gather information and express their feelings and concerns, says Dr. Kraut of Carnegie Mellon. In such situations, he says, people turn to Internet discussion groups, blogs and other communications tools for "sensemaking," as they sort out with others the change roiling the world around them.
Larry Hawes, 47, was laid off from his job as a consultant at International Business Machines Corp. in November. But he has never lost touch with his former co-workers. The Ipswich, Mass., resident spends a lot more time building up his personal blog, which is dubbed "Together, We Can!" He also sends out more Twitters, a service for broadcasting short messages to a circle of friends and associates. He says he is on Twitter all day, sending out about 10 posts a day to a group of 137 people, including former IBM colleagues and other friends. In total, he adds, he's sent out 652 "tweets" since October.
"I'm maintaining relationships with IBM-ers because I don't work there anymore," says Mr. Hawes.
Others find comfort in new friendships forged in unemployment. Prior to October, Cara Wayman, 27, spent very little time online. With her full-time job at a nursing home as a nurse assistant and as a part-time student studying for a sociology-psychology degree, the resident of Lynn, Mass., says she only logged in online two to three times a week for 15 minutes a pop. But in October, Ms. Wayman was laid off from her nursing-home job and she now spends five hours a day online. When she wants to switch off entirely, Ms. Wayman plays Sudoku and other games "to step out of reality," she says.
But much of her time is spent job seeking on social-networking sites and even the "General Hospital Happenings" forum for denizens of the daytime television soap opera. Her interactions quickly evolved from just job-searching to online friendships. "It's kind of like a support group," she says. "I refresh pages a billion times" to see if people have replied to my posts, says Ms. Wayman. All of this time spent online is "kind of embarrassing," she says.
She's not alone. Shirley Condon of Colleyville, Texas, runs the General Hospital forum and says the economy has reshaped the tone and purpose of the discussions. The stay-at-home mother of two teenage daughters says the number of visits to the forum has surged to as many as 20,000 visits a week, from 10,000 last year. More and more of the recent postings in the forum have been about the economy, rather than "General Hospital," says Ms. Condon.
"A lot of the people have lost their jobs and can't afford shrinks so they're coming on the site and asking, 'How do I handle it?' " she says. "People are frantic. There's more drama in real life now for sure than on the TV."
Write to Nick Wingfield at email@example.com and Pui-Wing Tam at firstname.lastname@example.org
Printed in The Wall Street Journal, page A11