April 16, 2003

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

A new sense of the shifting Internet population

The online population is fluid and shifting. While 42% of Americans say they don’t use the Internet, many of them either have been Internet users at one time or have a once-removed relationship with the Internet through family or household members. This report focuses on several new findings about those who say they do not use the Internet:

  • Net Evaders: 20% of non-Internet users live with someone who uses the Internet from home. Some of these self-described non-users exploit workarounds that allow them to “use” the Internet by having email sent and received by online family members and by having others in their home do online searches for information they want. Others proudly reject the Internet and proclaim their independence from the online world.
  • Net Dropouts: 17% of non-Internet users were once users. Most of them are dropouts because of technical problems such as broken computers or problems with their Internet Service Provider. This number of “Net Dropouts” has increased from the last time the Pew Internet & American Life Project asked about dropouts in April 2000. At that time, 13% of non-users were Net Dropouts.
  • Truly Disconnected:  Some 24% of Americans are truly offline; they have no direct or indirect experience with the Internet.

Internet access is also fluid for another reason. Between a quarter and half of current Internet users say they have dropped offline for an extended period at one point or another in their online life. To be sure, some users have progressed smoothly from non-use to steady use with few, if any interruptions. But the Project’s latest data show that for many others, the road to Internet use is paved with bumps and turnarounds— brought on by economic difficulties, waning interest in going online, or more pressing demands on their time.

Pew Internet Project tracking data show a flattening of the overall growth of the Internet population since late 2001. Internet penetration rates have hovered between 57% and 61% since October 2001, rather than pursuing the steady climb that they had showed in prior years. One possible explanation for this leveling trend is that the number of people dropping offline roughly equals the number of newcomers who come online each month. The lack of growth might also be tied to a struggling economy that leaves some families worried about household finances. Or it may be that we have reached a point where the adoption curve has peaked and the market is no longer working to bring online new groups of Internet users. Whatever the reason, it merits continued surveillance.

Most non-users live physically and socially close to the Internet

Internet use is so normalized in America that even most non-users say they are in close proximity to the Internet. They either have friends or family who use the Internet or they know of public access locations in their communities.

  • 60% of non-users know of a place in their community where Internet access is publicly available, while 76% of Internet users know of public access sites. Most of those who know of local access points say those access points are easy to reach. The most frequently identified location of public access is a library.
  • 74% of non-users say they have family members and close friends who go online.
  • 27% of non-users say that very few or none of the people they know go online.

Internet access has grown across-the-board, but clear demographic gaps remain

Our surveys have shown that growth in the Internet population has occurred across every demographic group. Still, there remain a variety of factors that separate Internet users from non-users. On the demographic side:

  • Younger Americans are much more wired than older Americans.
  • Well-to-do Americans are more wired that less well-off Americans, and the employed are far more wired than the unemployed.
  • White Americans are more wired than African-Americans and Hispanics.
  • Well-educated Americans are more wired than those who only completed high school.
  • Suburban and urban residents are more wired than rural residents.
  • Parents of children living at home are more wired than non-parents.

There are also social differences between Internet users and non-users

Our survey explored other dimensions of the social world of Americans with respect to Internet use. The research indicates:

  • Those who are socially content–who trust others, have lots of people to draw on for support, and who believe that others are generally fair–are more likely to be wired than those who are less content. There is also some modest evidence that those with positive and outward orientation towards the world are more wired than those who are worried about America and more focused inward.
  • Those who feel they have control over their lives are more likely to be wired than those who feel they do not have much control of their lives.
  • Those who read newspapers, watch TV, and use cell phones and other technologies are more likely to use the Internet than those who don’t.

The majority of non-users say they do not plan to go online

Some 56% of non-Internet users do not think they will ever go online. These people are generally the poorer, older segment of the not-online population, and are more likely to be white, female, retired and living in rural areas.

Non-users say they feel no need or desire to use the Internet, or that going online is not a good use of their time. This nonchalance and resistance is often related to a general misconception of what the Web and email have to offer. In other cases, reluctance is connected to specific obstacles, fears, or previous online experiences.

About a third of non-Internet users say the cost of computers and Internet access is a major problem for them. An even larger number of non-users said they have not gone online because they are worried about online pornography, credit card theft, and fraud. Some 29% say they don’t have time to use the Internet, and 27% say they believe the Internet is too complicated and hard to understand.

During interviews, non-users or brand new users offered us a host of reasons that keep them offline. Some were embarrassed over lack of computer skills. Others feared breaking or damaging computers. Some were afraid of appearing stupid or foolish in front of family, friends, coworkers or employees. Others were slowed down by limited English language skills. While not a part of our survey, problems with basic literacy in any language are another barrier to full Internet use. The National Adult Literacy Survey by the U.S. Department of Education estimates that up to 23% of the U.S. population struggles enough with literacy that they have difficulty completing everyday tasks.

Some 40% of non-users say they think they will go online some day. This group is younger than the group that says it has no plans to go online. These prospective Internet users are evenly divided between men and women, and more likely to be urban dwellers and parents. They are also more likely to be black or Hispanic than to be white.

A special look at the disabled and the Internet

The disabled have among the lowest levels of Internet access in America. They face unique hurdles going online. Disabled non-users are less likely than other non-users to believe that they will ever use the Internet and less likely than others to live physically and socially close to the Internet. Disabled Americans are less likely to have friends or family who go online.

  • 38% of disabled Americans go online, compared to 58% of all Americans. Of the disabled who do go online, a fifth say their disability makes using the Internet difficult.
  • 28% of disabled non-users say their disability makes it difficult or impossible for them to go online.

The cost of technological and software solutions to various disabilities is expensive — $3,000 for a Braille computer interface, for example. The high cost of Internet-adaptive technologies, combined with the relatively smaller incomes of the disabled, make Internet use prohibitively expensive for many.

Methodology

This research is based primarily on a national telephone survey conducted among 3,553 Americans between March 1-31 and May 2-19, 2002. Other data in the survey are drawn from other Pew Internet Project phone surveys in March, April and May-June 2000 and December 2002. Further insights were gathered during in-depth interviews with non-users and new Internet users, most of which took place at greater Washington, D.C. and Baltimore area community technology centers over the summer of 2002. For more detailed methodological information, please see the methodology section at the end of this report.