Decreasing numbers, increasing problems: Non-users have more barriers to Internet adoption to overcome than ever before
Over the past 20 years, the proportion of Internet users has continuously increased. According to the latest Pew Research Center data, 84 percent of US citizens were online in 2015. Only 16 percent of the respondents identified themselves as non-users, i.e. people who do not use the Internet. This stands in stark contrast to the numbers of non-users only 10 years ago (around 30 percent in 2006) and 20 years ago (77 percent in 1996). This trend leads many people to assume that non-users are a phenomenon of the past and that soon everyone will be online in some way or another. However, looking at the shrinking group of non-users more closely, it becomes apparent quickly that those who have not made the move online are facing increasing problems and barriers to overcome.
The question of relevance
In a time when most people in highly-technologized countries use the Internet on a regular basis, a notion has developed that people who are offline are simply “refusniks” or find the Internet to be irrelevant to them. This notion has been criticized by researchers in various countries who find the concept of relevance to be much more nuanced than we would like to think. In a 2012 study that I conducted together with colleagues from Sweden, we interviewed Internet non-users aged 25-55 years in Sweden and the United Kingdom. While many non-users mentioned that they were not really that interested in the Internet, a few probing questions revealed that there were some underlying reasons for this disinterest, including general discomfort with technologies, the fear of breaking (someone else’s) equipment and a feeling of stigma due to the fact that they were not able to utilize a common technology. It was simply “easier” to say that they were not interested in the Internet rather than admitting that they did not know how or could not afford the access or the equipment.
While “lack of relevance” may really indicate other underlying reasons in addition to those mentioned here, the findings from our qualitative study led us to investigate a number of rationales for being offline in a quantitative design. Using representative datasets of the British and Swedish population, my colleagues and I investigated the demographics of non-user populations as well as self-reported reasons for being offline in both countries between 2005 and 2013. With decreasing numbers of non-users, these populations have become increasingly concentrated in heavily disadvantaged groups, such as the elderly, the unemployed, those with lower educational qualifications, those living in rural and remote areas, and those who are socially isolated. At the same time, we found that the number of reasons mentioned for being offline increased between 2005 and 2013 with a “lack of interest” being the most prominent reason among both British and Swedish non-users. However, we also found that reasons such as high cost of equipment and connections as well as a lack of access and skills remained as important as ever. This means that in comparison to 5 or 10 years ago, many of today’s non-users are often facing not just one problem (for example affordability), but a larger number of barriers. It is likely that this is the case because those non-users who had fewer barriers to overcome have by now made the move online, while those who have more barriers to overcome are being left behind.
Considering that today’s non-users are mostly concentrated in vulnerable groups and feel that they have to overcome more barriers to get online than non-users did 10 years ago it becomes increasingly important to formulate specific and targeted policies and programs that address all these problems at the same time. Building on previously formulated recommendations, general issues of inequality and exclusion need to be addressed at the same time as specific digital inequalities. In the context of many non-users facing more pressing issues than buying computer equipment or spending time learning digital skills, a “one size fits all” approach will not address the issue sufficiently. While free and affordable access as well as context-relevant approaches to digital literacy are certainly important first steps, general literacy issues, poverty, social isolation, and health issues need to be taken into account. This points back to the increasing importance of local and regional initiatives that are familiar with the specific issues in their communities. Federal policies and programs addressing digital and general inequalities in combination with local and regional initiatives may be a helpful step in the right direction.
Dr. Bianca C. Reisdorf is a Postdoctoral Research Associate in the Quello Center, Michigan State University. Her research interests include digital inequalities and policies, internet use among vulnerable groups, and cross-national comparative studies that apply both qualitative and quantitative methods. Current research projects include a cross-national study of the history of rural broadband adoption and policies in the US, Canada, Australia and the UK, and a study of digital divides in the US, with a focus on Michigan and Detroit. She was a Lecturer and Director of Distance Learning in the Department of Media and Communication at the University of Leicester in the United Kingdom before joining the Quello Center.