February 27, 2014

The Web at 25 in the U.S.

Part 2: Americans’ views about the role of the internet in their lives

Harder to give up internet than TVIn addition to asking people about their internet adoption, Pew Research explored user attitudes about the role of various technologies in their lives. We started with a dependency question: How hard would it be for users to give up various technologies in their lives? The survey shows that older technologies like television and landline phones are losing stature as essential technologies and the internet and cell phones have risen as key technologies for users:

  • 53% of internet users say the internet would be, at minimum, very hard to give up, compared with 38% in 2006.5 That amounts to 46% of all adults who say now that the internet would be very hard to give up. Online women are somewhat more likely than online men to say this (56% vs. 48%) and those with higher levels of education and household income are more likely than others to report it would be difficult to give up the internet. In addition, longtime internet veterans are more likely than relative newcomers to say the internet would be very hard to give up: 62% of those who started online in 1999 or sooner say so, compared with 46% of those who started online in the 21st Century.
  • 49% of cell phone owners say their cell would be, at minimum, very hard to give up, compared with 43% in 2006. That amounts to 44% of all adults who say now that their cell phone would be very hard to give up. The cell phone users who live in households earning $75,000 or more are most likely to report this: 59% say it would be very hard, notably more than those in lower income households. In addition, the cell owners ages 30-49 are more likely than other age groups to say they would have a very hard time giving up their cells.
  • Harder to give up cell phones than landlines35% of all adults say their television would be very hard to give up, compared with 44% who said that in 2006. And the numbers are particularly striking for young adults: Only 12% of those ages 18-29 say television would be very hard to give up.
  • 36% of internet users say email would be very hard to give up, similar to the 34% who said that in 2006. That amounts to 31% of adults who say now that email would be very hard to give up. Those who live in higher-income households and college graduates are more likely to be wedded to email than those in lower-income households and those without college degrees. And longtime internet veterans (those who first went online in 1999 or sooner) are more likely than those who went online more recently to say email would be very hard to give up (44% vs. 30%).
  • 28% of landline telephone owners say their phone would be very hard to give up, a major drop from 48% in 2006. The current reading means that 17% of all adults would find their landline very hard to give up. Women who own landlines are more likely than men to say their wired phone would be very hard to give up (34% vs. 20%). Those ages 65 and older are the most likely to say it would be very hard for them to lose their landline: 46%, compared with 7% of those ages 18-29.
  • 11% of internet users say social media would be very hard to give up. That comes to 10% of all adults. This is the first time we have asked this question, so there are no trend data to report.

The chart below shows the varying levels of enthusiasm for different technologies among their users.

How hard would it be to give up these technologies

In addition to this enthusiasm, a notable share of Americans say the internet is essential to them. Among those internet users who said it would be very hard to give up net access, most (61% of this group) said being online was essential for job-related or other reasons. Translated to the whole population, about four in ten adults (39%) feel they absolutely need to have internet access. Among those most deeply tied to the internet, about half as many (some 30%) said it would be hard to give up access because they simply enjoy being online. And 7% said both reasons applied to them—it is essential and enjoyable in equal measure.

The internet’s social impact

There is considerable debate about whether people’s use of the internet has enriched their relationships or not and whether the online environment is friendly or menacing. We asked questions about that and found that for the American public, the balance sheet is considerably more positive than negative.

  • 70% of internet users say they had been treated kindly or generously by others online. That compares with 25% who say they have been treated unkindly or been attacked by someone online.
  • 56% of internet users say they have seen an online group come together to help a person or a community solve a problem. That compares with 25% who say they have left an online group because the interaction became too heated or members were unpleasant to one another.

Young adult internet users—those ages 18-29—are more likely than older internet users to say they have encountered both the good and the ugly online: They are more likely than their elders to have been treated kindly and unkindly and to have seen people band together and people attack each other online.

kindness and cruelty online

Online women are more likely than online men to have encountered some of these things: Women who use the internet are more likely than men to have been treated kindly (74% vs. 66%); to have seen an online group come together to help someone or a community solve a problem (63% vs. 50%); and to have left an online group because the interaction became too heated or members were unpleasant to each other (28% vs. 22%). There were not statistically significant differences between online women and men when it comes to being treated unkindly or attacked by someone online.

Asked for a broad perspective about the civility or incivility they have either witnessed or encountered during all of their online tenure, 76% of internet users said that the people they witnessed or encountered online were mostly kind and 13% said people were mostly unkind. Some 6% said both kindness and unkindness were there in equal measure. Interestingly, the oldest internet users (ages 65+) were the most likely to say people were mostly kind—85% of them said so.

The impact of online communication on relationships

There is considerable discussion about whether people’s use of the internet has made their relationships richer or more superficial.

Impact of online communications on relationshipsOn this 25th anniversary of the web survey, we also asked internet users for their own summary judgment and by a more than 3-t0-1 margin they say they think their online communication has generally made them socially richer: 67% of internet users say their online communication with family and friends has generally strengthened  those relationships, while 18% say it generally weakens those relationships.

Interestingly enough, there are no significant demographic differences tied to users’ feelings about the impact of online communication on relationships.

Equal proportions of online men and women, young and old, rich and poor, highly educated and less-well educated, and veterans and relative newbies say by 3-to-1 or better that online communication is a relationship enhancer, rather than a relationship detractor.

The overall verdict: The internet has been a plus for society and an especially good thing for individual users

Overall has the internet been a good or bad thingAs the web reaches this benchmark, we asked internet users: “Overall, when you add up all the advantages and disadvantages of the internet, would you say the internet has mostly been a good thing or a bad thing for society?”  By a 76%-15% margin, internet users said the internet has been good for society and another 8% volunteered the answer that they believe it had been both good and bad.

This sweeping judgment came across the board among different demographic groups of internet users.

Then we asked about the users themselves: “Overall, when you add up all the advantages and disadvantages of the internet, would you say the internet has mostly been a good thing or a bad thing for you?” And the margin of affirmation was even bigger: 90% of internet users say that overall the internet had been a good thing for them and 6% said it was a bad thing. Another 3% volunteered the answer that it had been both good and bad for them.

Moving across the demographic spectrum, this overwhelmingly positive view applies to all major groups.

  1. For each technology, a small share of respondents volunteered the answer that the technology would be “impossible” to give up. For these calculations, those answers were added to those who said the technology would be “very hard” to give up.