April 16, 2003

The Shifting Internet Population Recasts the Digital Divide Debate

20% of non-Internet users live in a house with an Internet connection

WASHINGTON – There is far more fluidity in the Internet population than most analysts imagine.

About a quarter of Americans live lives that are quite distant from the Internet – they have never been online, and don’t know many others who use the Internet. At the same time, many Americans who do not use the Internet now were either users in the past or they live in homes with Internet connections.

Three new insights regarding patterns of Internet use and non-use emerge from a new report from the Pew Internet & American Life Project.

  • 20% of non-Internet users live in wired homes and yet remain offline.
  • 17% of the current group of non-users are online drop outs. They formerly used the Internet but no longer do.
  • Over a quarter of current Internet users report that at one time or another in their online lives, they dropped offline for an extended period.

    Recent surveys by the Pew Internet Project show that about 80 million American adults – 42% of the adult population – say they do not use the Internet. But it turns out that the notion that people are either “online” or “offline” is not as simple as it seems.

    “The Internet population shows much greater churn than most realize – a lot of people are moving in and out of the online world pretty regularly,” said Amanda Lenhart, the Research Specialist at the Project who authored the new report “The Ever-Shifting Internet Population: A new look at Internet use and the digital divide.”

    She continued: “It is too simple to talk about a digital divide based exclusively on problems with access when it is now clear that access issues change from month to month for lots of Americans. A surprisingly large number don’t want to be connected even though they have tasted what online life is like or live with the Internet literally in the next room.”

    Lenhart’s report finds that 24% of Americans remain truly unconnected to the online world. They have never tried going online and are often quite removed from the connected population.

    Moreover, there are still pronounced gaps in Internet use along several demographic lines: Older Americans are much less wired than younger Americans; minorities are less connected than whites, those with modest amounts of income and education are less wired than those with college educations and household incomes over $75,000, and rural Americans lag behind suburban and urban Americans in the online population.

    The Pew Internet & American Life Project survey also found that there are social and psychological explanations why some Americans do not use the Internet. For instance, a person’s sense of personal empowerment can make a difference in her decision to go online or not. Those who feel less in control of their lives are less likely to go online.

    Disabilities also keep some Americans from using the Internet. Almost three quarters of disabled Americans do not go online, and 28% of them said their disability or impairment made it difficult or impossible to go online.

    A portion of non-Internet users are socially disconnected from the Internet, with more than a quarter (27%) saying that they know almost no one who goes online. A similar group of non-users (22%) say they do not know of public Internet access points in their community. At the same time, it is also the case that more than half of non-users know people in their social networks who go online and most of them say it is not hard for them to get to public access points in their neighborhoods.

    “The truly unconnected are the Americans that those who worry about the digital divide should understand,” said Lee Rainie, director of the Pew Internet & American Life Project. “The reasons non-users stay away from the Internet are varied and complex. Many lack the resources to go online. Others don’t live in a social world where Internet use matters and still others have no notion that the communication and information functions of the Internet can help them improve their lives.”

    About 40% of non-users think they will go online some day, and 56% believe they will never go online.

    This study was conducted via random digit dial telephone polling in the months of March, April and May 2002, and also draws on the comments gathered from 6 focus groups with new and non-users at Washington, D.C. area community technology centers.

    The Pew Internet & American Life Project is a non-profit, non-partisan research organization fully funded by the Pew Charitable Trusts to examine how Internet use affects families, communities, health care, education, civic/political life, and the work place.