April 16, 2003

The Ever-Shifting Internet Population: A new look at Internet access and the digital divide

Part 5. A new understanding of Internet use

Introduction: The four types of users and non-users

There is no monochromatic pattern to Internet use. People have a variety of relationships to the technology. Clearly, there are an identifiable number who use the Internet now. At the same time, there are those who have tried using the Internet and dropped off. Others who say they do not use the Internet actually have family members send and receive emails for them and do Web searches for them. They have created elaborate work-arounds that allow them to take advantage of the Internet without ever actually putting fingers to keyboard or mouse. Another portion of current Internet users have stopped using the Internet for an extended period of time. The situation is more varied than might be suggested by a simple binary calculation that some Americans are “online” and other Americans are “offline.” Many people do not fit neatly into those categories. They go online; they stop. Some return; others do not. There are four types of users and non-users that emerge in this more complex universe.

  • Net Evaders – 20% of non-users.  These are non-users who live in households that have Internet connections and in which other family members go online from home. There is evidence that at least some of them have established work-arounds with Internet-using members of their household that allow them to “send” and “receive” email and do Web searches without actually logging on. Others proudly avoid the Internet on principled grounds, while others give different reasons, among them lack of time or interest.
  • Net Dropouts – 17% of non-users, with some overlap with Net Evaders.  These non- users were once online. They stopped and have not gone back. Many have had trouble with their computers or Internet connections, while others simply did not like the Internet. Two-thirds say they think they will return to the Internet someday.
  • Intermittent User s – somewhere between 27% and 44% of those who currently use the Internet.  These are online Americans who say they dropped offline for an extended period and are now back online.
  • T he Truly Unconnected – 69% of non-users.  These are people who live completely apart from the Internet. They are those who have never used the Internet before and who do not live with or often even know many Internet users.

Net Evaders: Offline in an online home

In our March-May 2002 survey, we asked non-Internet users “Does anyone in your household go online from home to access the Internet or World Wide Web or to send and receive email?” Surprisingly, one in five of all non-users (20%) answered that they lived such households. The figure was so startling that we asked the same question in several subsequent monthly surveys – and got the same result.

Since Net Evaders have clear opportunities to go online, it follows that they would have clear reasons to resist. Their resistance to using the Internet reflects a concern that going online could distract from other more pressing demands on their time, and their view that they are not missing very much by not going online. Some also worry about their ability to master computers and online navigation.

Demographics of Net Evaders

Notably, 28% of Net Evaders have used the Internet in the past.7 These are people whose online experiences were not very satisfying. Many said they dropped off because they did not like the Internet world, or they did not find it interesting and useful, or they simply did not want to use the Internet any more. Computer and technology access issues were another major problem for them. Fourteen percent of Net Evaders reported computer access issues, perhaps because other members of their households were monopolizing their access to the family’s wired computer.

Almost half of Net Evaders believe they will go online some day, not particularly surprising since key hurdles to using the Internet – access and cost – have already been surmounted by the household.

We talked with several Net Evaders to explore their choice. One suburban homemaker said she avoided Internet use for fear of incurring even more obligations. She feared that use of email would eat into her already-full life and that she would feel duty-bound to keep in touch more frequently with people who lived outside of her immediate area. She worried about becoming “addicted” to the Internet, and also doubted her ability to learn to use the technology well. She referred, jokingly, to herself and a friend who was also not connected as “Dumb and Dumber.” The friend, though, has since become an Internet user.

Another interviewee owned his own business and worked from home. He preferred to communicate with others via the phone or face-to-face, which he found more meaningful and productive. In addition, he disclosed that he had figured out a work-around: If email turned out to be the best way to conduct a communication, he said he would have people send it to his wife, who would print it out for him. If he needed to look something up online, he could ask one of his children to check it for him and print it out.

Still others were proud that they did not use the Internet. They view themselves as less dependent on technology, and more self-sufficient. They said they do not want to use the Internet and view use of it as a form of weakness. They are pleased that they do not “need” the Internet. They are delighted to reject such a popular technology. In short, the decision not to use the Internet was a distinct lifestyle choice.

Net Evaders are fairly evenly divided by sex: 48% are men, 52% are women. They are slightly more likely to be between age 30 and 49 than in other age groups and they are not very likely to be senior citizens. Net Evaders are predominantly suburban and urban, not rural. They are overrepresented among Northeasterners and underrepresented among Midwesterners. Compared to others who don’t use the Internet, Net Evaders are likely to have relatively high levels of education and household income. Indeed, close to half of all non-users in households earning over $75,000 are Net Evaders.

A disproportionately high number of Net Evaders are parents. In fact, 66% of Net Evaders who live in a wired home are parents of online children. It is probable that the Net Evader in the home depends on his children who use the Internet to do the few online chores that might be convenient and useful to the Net Evader. It also might be the case that the Evader has decided not to battle others in the family for access to the Internet-connected computer.

There is other evidence that Net Evaders live lives very close to those who use the Internet. A little more than half of non-users in wired homes say that most of the people they know use the Internet. In comparison, only 35% of all non-users say this.

Net Dropouts

Seventeen percent of those who do not use the Internet are Net Dropouts. This is a modest increase in the number of dropouts we measured in the April 2000 survey when we found that 13% of non-users reported they had left the online population.

Net Dropouts tend to be young Americans, many of whom have had recent trouble with Internet access or their computer. A disproportionate number are parents, and they are likely to cite burdens on their time as a reason they do not want to go online. Additionally, a surprisingly large group of them are employed.

Like other non-users of the Internet, Net Dropouts are overrepresented among minorities. They are also overrepresented among those with lower household income, which suggests that the burden of paying for Internet access and maintaining a computer is likely a factor in their decision to drop their Internet connection. Net Dropouts are also markedly more likely to be urban residents than suburban or rural.

Net Dropouts cite a variety of voluntary and involuntary reasons for their departure from the Internet population. The biggest reason Net Dropouts cited for abandoning their use of the Internet is that they no longer had a computer. This was a problem that tended to be cited by younger adults, those in rural areas, those in households with modest incomes, and men. Indeed, one respondent told us that his “girlfriend stole my computer.”

Another related access issue is loss of Internet connectivity. People who stopped going online because of Internet access issues explained that they lost access because they moved, changed or lost jobs, or could not get to the place where they usually accessed the Internet. Some also said the cost of an online connection became too expensive.  More frequently than other groups, 18–29 year olds, high school graduates, and women tend to break off from the Internet because of Internet access problems.

A general dislike of the Internet was another oft-cited reason for dropping out. These Dropouts found the Web unhelpful and uninteresting. This reason was given most often by minorities who dropped out, older Americans, those in high-income households and with high levels of education, and men.

The reasons for dropping out

Problems with online content and design issues were less important to Net Dropouts than problems of access and preference. Those who expressed concerns with Internet content or design tended to be suburban residents, male, white, and between the ages of 30 and 49.

While many Net Dropouts reported that loss of a computer and/or Internet access was a main factor in going offline, some 79% of Net Dropouts knew of a convenient public place, like a library, where they could to access the Internet.  Eighty-three percent said that it was “very” or “somewhat” easy to get to places in their communities with public Internet access. 

Most Net Dropouts do use computers and know other people who are online. They are twice as likely to use computers as other non-users; some 57% say that they use a computer on at least an occasional basis. Nine-tenths of Net Dropouts have close friends or family who use the Internet, and 86% say that at least some people that they know go online.  In comparison, 69% of non-users say that some or most of the people they know go online. Net Dropouts may no longer be physically connected to the Internet but they remain socially connected to it.

Generally, Net Dropouts view the online world in a more positive light than other non-users and that, most likely, is a product of their familiarity with it.  Sixty-three percent of Net Dropouts think that they are probably or definitely likely to start using the Internet or email again someday.  Other non-users are more likely to suggest they will never go online. 

Nonetheless, Net Dropouts seem to have a more negative outlook on society compared to Internet users. Nearly half of Net Dropouts are dissatisfied with the way things are going in this country today, and over 60% say that you can’t be too careful in dealing with people.  Over half of Net Dropouts believe that most people would take advantage of others given the opportunity.  Twice as many Net Dropouts as Internet users say that they have hardly any people they could turn to for support when they need help. Generally, all non-users, including Net Dropouts, feel like they have less control over their lives.

While Net Dropouts describe the Internet in a variety of ways, they see it more as a tool for specific needs, rather than a resource with broad applicability to their lives.

Intermittent Users

In our March-May 2002 survey, fully 44% of the nation’s current Internet users have gone offline for extended periods.8 Again, because this number was as startling to us as the figure we got for Net Evaders, we asked this question again in December 2002. However, in the later survey, a much smaller 27% of Internet users said they had gone offline for an extended period of time. We plan to continue to probe on this issue because of the wide variance. Yet, it is clear that over a quarter of current Internet users at one time or another stopped using the Internet for an extended period.

The existence of this group suggests that access to the Internet is not constant for a large percentage of the online population. People get fed up, cut off, or other aspects of life get in the way of their use of the Internet. College students leave the university network behind as they seek their first jobs. Mothers turn off the computer to care for young children. Others move, lose jobs or cannot afford upgrades to the computers or cannot afford to fix broken machines. For some of these users, use of the Internet no longer seems essential in the face of changing life priorities. Eventually, they decide they miss it and return to the Internet when it becomes possible.

Intermittent Users are disproportionately young, single, students, minorities, or not full-time workers. Intermittent Internet users are evenly divided between men and women. They are somewhat overrepresented among users who live in rural or urban areas and underrepresented among suburban users. They also fall disproportionately into the ranks of those who live in households with lesser income and educational attainment. Most are dial-up users.

The reasons Intermittent Users dropped offline

We have found in other research that as a general rule, the longer a person has used the Internet, the more likely it is that he goes online frequently, spends several hours on any given day online, participates in many online activities, and says his Internet use makes a difference in his life. This “experience effect” also seems to play out among Intermittent Users. The newest Internet users are the most likely to be Intermittent Users and the most experienced Internet users are the least likely to be Intermittent Users. In all likelihood, relative newcomers to the online world have not built Internet use into their lives to the same degree that more experienced users have.9

Most Intermittent Users dropped offline because of technology problems or because they were not finding much of use online. Here are the major reasons they cited:

  • Didn’t have the time for the Internet . Most frequently, intermittent users said they did not have the time to use the Internet or that it was not a good use of their time. Some users cited illness in the family or small children or other care-giving responsibilities that prevented them from using the Internet. Others cited workplace demands and some simply felt that there were other ways to spend their time that were more rewarding. Said one user, “Life’s too short to waste online.”
  • That darn ISP! The next most cited explanation given for tuning out were Internet Service Provider problems. Some of the problems include complete shut down of the ISP, slow service or connection, free services switching to a pay model, and frequent busy signals.
  • It wasn’t useful then. Seven percent of Intermittent Users said they dropped offline for an extended period because they simply did not like it, or want it. They reported that it wasn’t interesting or useful. Another 7% told us that they just didn’t need the Internet at that time in their lives.
  • Moved or lost local access. Seven percent of Intermittent Users said they stopped using the Internet because they moved and could no longer get local access. Another 3% said they could no longer get to the location where they used to go online (friend moved away, no longer have a car, finished school). One respondent said his job as a sailor kept him at sea and offline for weeks at a time. And a number of respondents said they lost access in their transition between college and the “real world.”
  • Broken computer, access to computer . Other online Americans who stopped their Internet use for a while reported that computer problems or access problems keep them offline. For 6% the computer broke, 4% simply lost access to a computer, a handful changed jobs or lost access at work. Some found it too hard to use, or that the Internet was too confusing and presented too much information. One woman told us that her “soon to be ex-husband” sent her a computer virus and rendered her machine unusable. Another told us that he lost access when he “went to jail.”
  • Worries. Some 6% of Intermittent Users said they went offline for a period out of fear of online crime. Fewer mentioned concern for their child’s or children’s safety and even fewer were worried about their privacy or found themselves disturbed by pornographic content. Others mentioned frustration with excessive amounts of spam, particularly pornographic spam, and pop-up advertisements as factors that drove them from the Internet for a time.

A small number of Intermittent Users (3%) said the cost of access kept them offline. And another tiny group reported that a disability, illness or hospitalization kept them offline for a time. Other respondents mentioned that they stopped using the Internet once they purchased a cell phone, while some mentioned that they went offline in the summertime, probably related to this group’s greater proportion of young people and higher incidence of students in the population. Hispanic and black Intermittent Internet users tend to point to time crunches and relevance as limiting factors in their ability or inability to use the Internet, while whites tend to blame ISP problems and lack of time.

The Truly Unconnected

It is important to highlight that that 24% of Americans live lives far removed from the online world. They have never tried it and often do not know many people who have ever tried it. They do not live in connected households. And while many of the Truly Unconnected say they know family and friends who go online, a disproportionately large percentage (31%) of this group say that very few or none of the people they know go online. For this isolated-from-the-Internet group there are scant resources and no support structure of people to help them navigate the technical difficulties of getting hooked up and online.

Fully 69% of non-Internet users have never been online and do not live with any one who uses the Internet at home. More than half (59%) of the Truly Unconnected are women. As a group, the Truly Unconnected have low incomes–43% live in households that earn under $30,000 yearly, and 29% earn under $20,000. They also tend to be even older than other non-users, with 62% over the age of 50. Seventy-four percent have a high school education or less. Three-quarters are white, 15% black, and 9% are Hispanic.

Many of the Truly Unconnected know of public locations of Internet access in their community, though they are less likely than other groups to know of public access points. Some 56% of the Truly Unconnected know of public Internet access spots, compared to 69% of all Americans who know about such access points. Of the Truly Unconnected who know of access points, the vast majority say these places are easy to get to.

So with easy public access nearby, why are the Truly Unconnected offline? Many of the unconnected lack social networks that would encourage them to build use of the Internet into their lives. Twenty-five percent say that close friends and family don’t go online. And, as mentioned above, another 31% of the unconnected say that very few or none of the people they know go online, compared to a mere 4% of Internet users who say the same.

The Truly Unconnected also believe that they would not benefit from using the Internet. Some 54% of the unconnected said they don’t need the Internet, and another 53% said they do not want it. Other Truly Unconnected Americans say they are worried about online content: 44% say they are worried about pornography and other objectionable content, online theft and fraud. A somewhat smaller group, 33%, say that Internet access is too expensive, and another 28% say that they don’t have time to use the Internet, or that it is not a good use of their time. Twenty-seven percent of unconnected respondents said that they thought the Internet was too complicated or hard to use, and another group (12%) said that they simply did not have a computer and /or an Internet connection, and it was lack of access to the technology that kept them from logging on to the Internet.

The Truly Unconnected also tend to have a more negative appraisal of the Internet than their wired counterparts. While they do believe that email helps people keep in touch and that the Internet would help them to find out about things that interest them more easily, they are less likely to agree with those statements than other users or non-users. More than half of the unconnected believe that the Internet is dangerous, and almost half regard it as mostly a form of entertainment. More than half (55%) do not think they are missing anything by not being online. About 2 in 5 of the Truly Unconnected think the Internet is too expensive and they are slightly more likely than other non-users to believe that the Internet is confusing and hard to use.

About 17% of all non-users are totally disconnected—they have no family or friends who go online, and have never used the Net themselves. For these Americans, the Internet is not even a part of the picture of their lives, except perhaps through exposure to it in the media (newspapers or TV), which itself exists at the periphery of their lives.

An access spectrum

These new findings suggest that the idea of a digital divide, defined by the simple idea of people being either online or offline, is a less accurate way of understanding adoption of the Internet than the idea of a spectrum of access. There is unevenness in people’s use and non-use of the Internet and there seems to be great fluidity in the Internet population itself. As it turns out, as many as 31% of those who say they are not Internet users once used the Internet or currently live in close proximity to it. These Americans know how to use the Internet or know others in their immediate household who can use it on their behalf. They are not in the same position as the 69% of non-users who are much more distant from the online world because they live outside an Internet-connected home and have never sampled online life.

Spectrum of internet access

The “sometimes on/sometimes off” character of Internet use by many Americans is consistent with historical patterns of technology adoption. Information services that require monthly payments by consumers and the development of infrastructure by industry typically diffuse unevenly.  Telephone penetration actually declined during the Great Depression when people’s incomes fell.  In contrast, information goods that require a one-time purchase usually have steadily increasing diffusion curves.  Americans continued to buy radios throughout the Depression; 46% of American households had radios in 1930 compared with 82% ten years later.  Video cassette recorders tell the same story; 2% of U.S. households had VCRs in 1980 and 70% had them by 1990.  The Internet is an information service that requires that infrastructure be built and that users make a periodic payment.  One would expect it to be more like the telephone than the radio in its adoption patterns.10

  1. Please see the Net Dropouts section on page 21 for a full discussion of this sub-group of non-users.
  2. This analysis excludes the 11% of Intermittent Internet users who said they had gone offline during a vacation.
  3. For more on the “experience effect,” please see the Project’s Getting Serious Online report at http://www.pewinternet.org/reports/toc.asp?Report=55.
  4. Jorge Reina Schement (2001) "Of Gaps by Which Democracy We Measure" in Benjamin Compaine, ed, The Digital Divide: Facing a Crisis or Creating a Myth. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.