February 17, 2004

Rural Areas and the Internet

Part 4. Rural Attitudes Toward the Internet

Rural Internet newcomers have mixed feelings about computers and technology, but more experienced users are more positive about them.

Another way to measure diffusion of the Internet is the attitudes and beliefs that users and non-users hold toward it.

For less experienced users, computers inspire mixed feelings. In all community types, larger percentages of new users than more experienced users harbor mixed feelings about computers and technology. This is especially the case for newer rural users. In a survey the Pew Internet Project conducted in October 2002, 50% of rural users with fewer than three years online reported “mixed feelings” towards computers and technology, whereas 32% of comparable urban users say this and 27% of suburban users say so.

However, fewer experienced users have mixed feelings in all community types. In fact, experienced rural Internet users are more positive about computers and technology than similarly experienced urban and suburban Internet users. While 23% of both urban and suburban users with four or more years experience online report mixed feelings, only 16% of rural users with three or more years experience hold mixed feelings about computers and technology. Most (84%) rural users with three years or more online report that they like computers and technology, whereas 75% of their urban counterparts and 76% of their suburban counterparts say this.

Most users say the Internet is a good place to look for information, stay in touch with friends and family, be entertained, and perform transactions.

Internet users in all three community types say that the Internet is good for a variety of pursuits. First and foremost, they say it is good for getting daily information such as weather reports, news, and sports scores. Next, the majority of users in each community type – over 80% of them – say that the Internet is a good way to send and receive greetings and invitations, and to communicate with friends and family. Third, it is a place in which to be entertained. These sentiments corroborate findings from 2002, which found that most Internet users expect to find what they are looking for when going online.12

However, online transactions are less accepted amongst rural users than urban and suburban users. Compared to rural users, a significantly larger percentage of urban and suburban users say that the Internet is a good place to conduct tasks and transactions such as shopping, banking, and purchasing movie and concert tickets.

Using the Internet to stay in touch with friends and family has been almost universally appreciated for some time.

Data collected from the Pew Internet Project’s first survey in March 2000, shows there is no difference between rural, urban and suburban users’ estimations of the Internet’s impact on connections to family.13 About 31% said that those connections had improved a lot because of the Internet, 24% said those connections improved some, and 15% said those connections to family had improved only a little. Another 30% of Internet users in each community type said that the Internet had not improved their connections to family at all. A year later, a longitudinal survey was conducted. About 40% of the sample was successfully re-contacted. When asked again about the Internet’s impact on their connections to family, rural residents’ responses were very similar to responses recorded a year earlier.

Rural, urban and suburban users rated the impact of the Internet on connections with friends slightly differently from each other. A larger percentage of rural users (26%) said that the Internet had not improved their connections to friends, while 20% of suburban users said this and 22% of urban users said this. These past similarities are a prelude to the current consensus that the Internet is good for communicating with friends and family and to the ubiquity of email.

Rural users’ online connections to groups are more likely to stretch beyond their physical community.

As of February 2001, 84% of Internet users – about 90 million people – say they have used the Internet to contact or get information from a group.14 These groups range from support groups that help members cope with illness to fan groups that discuss their favorite television series online. Professional associations, political groups, sports leagues and civic groups are also some of the groups to which Internet users belong. The Pew Internet Project asked Internet users about their experiences with the groups with which they had the most contact through the Internet.

Urban and suburban users’ online communities are more localized than rural users’. While 15% of suburban users and 19% of urban users say that most members of their online group live “in my local community,” only 8% of rural users’ say that most of their group’s members live in the same local community. Rural users’ online community connections are more likely than those of urban and suburban users to be directed beyond their physical location. Half of rural users say that most of the other members of their online group live “all over the country.” By comparison, 42% of suburban users say so, and 39% of urban users say so. Not surprisingly then, rural users are more likely than others to say that the Internet is more useful for becoming involved in things going on outside their local community.  77% of rural users say so, while 66% of suburban users and 64% of urban users say so.

The Internet has made a smaller dent in rural users’ major life moments than in those of urban and suburban users.

While rural, urban and suburban users have agreed upon the Internet’s impact on their contacts with friends and family, this has not been the case with intermittently weighty matters.

In 2002, the Pew Internet Project gauged the impact of the Internet by asking to what extent users incorporate the Internet into “major life moments” – big decisions and occasions such as making large purchases, changing jobs, or dealing with an illness – that respondents had experienced in the two previous years. Revisiting that data reveals that the Internet is less likely to be a part of major occasions in rural users’ lives than in urban and suburban users’ lives.15

In terms of employment, 72% of rural users say the Internet played no role in a job change. By comparison, 55% of urban users and 61% of suburban users said the Internet played no part in their job change.

Internet users’ decision to purchase a car also shows substantial differences between community types. Of car buyers, 63% of rural users say that the Internet had nothing to do with making the decision. However, for 50% of urban and 50% of suburban users buying a car, the Internet was part of the decision. Ten percent of each group reported that the Internet was crucial to their decision.

For those who had recently moved, a slightly larger percentage of rural users (68%) than urban users (64%) and suburban users (63%) say that the Internet played no part in finding a new place to live.

Rural users were also less likely than suburban users to have used the Internet to deal with an illness or health condition, but more likely than urban users to have done so. While 37% of suburban users say that the Internet played no part in dealing with their illness, 46% of rural users say so. Meanwhile, 57% of urban users said that the Internet was not a part of coping with their condition.

Finally, most rural and suburban users starting new romantic relationships say the Internet had nothing to do with it (75%) while 60% of urban users say so.

  1. Horrigan, John and Lee Rainie. “Counting on the Internet.” Washington, D.C.: Pew Internet & American Life Project, December 2002. Available at: http://www.pewinternet.org/Reports/2002/Counting-on-the-Internet-Most-find-the-information-they-seek-expect.aspx
  2. Source: March-December 2000 tracking survey. N= 3015, margin of error ± 2 %
  3. Horrigan, John and Lee Rainie and Susannah Fox. “Online Communities: Networks that nurture long-distance relationships and local ties.” Washington, D.C.: Pew Internet & American Life Project, October 2001. Available at: http://www.pewinternet.org/Reports/2001/Online-Communities.aspx
  4. Source: January 2002 tracking survey. N=1,415, margin of error is ±3%