While internet adoption has been more or less stable over the past few years, there has been significant growth in the activities internet users engage in once they are online. As a result, the gap in technical experience—and general understanding of the internet—between online adults and offline adults is increasing.
Email and search remain the backbone of the internet (roughly six in ten online adults engage in each of these activities on a typical day), but other activities are becoming ubiquitous as well. Using social networking sites, an activity once dominated by young adults, is now done by 65% of internet users—representing a majority of the total adult population. For the following “core” internet activities, which also include online shopping and online banking, the main gaps in use are related to age, household income, and educational attainment.
Email and search
Since the Pew Internet Project began measuring adults’ online activities in the last decade, email and search have consistently ranked as the most popular. In fact, they remain nearly universal among adult internet users—with a few exceptions. Women, for instance, are somewhat more likely than men to use email to communicate, mirroring a trend that we have seen around other online communication activities. And young adults under age 30 are more likely than adults age 65 and older to use search engines to find information. Both activities also have a fairly strong correlation with education and income, although there are no significant differences among different groups for either activity by race or ethnicity.
Online commerce: Banking and shopping
Online banking is a relatively common activity online: 61% of adult internet users do it, making it about as popular an activity as using social networking sites. However, as with buying products online, we do see a few noticeable differences among demographic groups, especially in terms of age, household income, and education. Most strikingly, adults age 65 and older are significantly less likely than other age groups to do any banking online. Additionally, those with at least some college (including college graduates) are more likely to use online banking than those with a high school diploma or less, and those in households making less than $30,000 per year are the income bracket least likely to use online banking, while those in households making more than $75,000 per year are most likely. Online banking is also more popular with online men than with online women. There are no differences by race or ethnicity.
Purchasing products online is also significantly less popular with adults over age 65. Those who have not completed high school and those in households making less than $30,000 per year are less likely to buy products online, while college graduates and those in households making more than $75,000 are more likely to do this. Online Hispanics are also somewhat less likely to make online purchases than whites or African Americans. There are no significant differences between internet users by gender.
Social networking site usage
Though one of the newer online activities the Pew Internet Project studies, as of 2011 social networking sites are used by 65% of all internet users—half of all American adults. Among internet users, we see a very strong correlation in use with age, as some 87% of internet users under 30 use these sites, compared with less than a third (29%) of those 65 and older. However, though their overall numbers are still relatively low, older adults have represented one of the fastest-growing segments of the social networking site-using population. This growth may be driven by several factors, some of which include the ability to reconnect with people from the past, find supporting communities to deal with a chronic disease, and connect with younger generations.
Other groups that are particularly likely to use social networking sites are adults with at least some college experience (who have not yet graduated) and parents with minor children living at home. There are currently no major differences in overall social networking site usage by gender, race, or household income.