“What do you mean, you don’t use the Internet? Do you live under a rock?!”

The stigma of being offline

It is critical that we do not patronize non-users by stigmatizing them as being stuck in the 20th century

In a time and society in which Internet use and Internet skills are expected of everyone—especially those under retirement age—affordable access to broadband infrastructures is a first, key step. But additional barriers to broadband adoption—digital skills and the motivation to use digital technologies and the Internet in the first place—must also be addressed.

Recent studies have shown that cost and access remain critical barriers for going (and staying) online. But my research shows that non-users increasingly mention other issues such as a lack of skills and interest as well. At the same time, other studies found that negative attitudes to technologies and the Internet may be holding non-users back from becoming Internet users as much as socio-demographic factors, such as income and education.

It is thus important that we pay attention not only to the “hard factors” of being offline, but also the “soft factors” like attitudes and perceptions that could potentially increase the motivation to go online. At the same time, it is critical that we do not patronize non-users by stigmatizing them as being stuck in the 20th century or making them feel like outsiders.

Stark reactions to non-use

In a few studies that I conducted with colleagues from England and Sweden, we found that non-users were facing stark reactions from friends, family, and even strangers when they admitted that they were not using the Internet:

  • One female interviewee in her late thirties reported that a friend reacted strongly to her Internet non-use and asked whether she lived under a rock.
  • Another non-user in her early thirties told us of the same kinds of reactions: “If you tell people ‘I haven’t got a computer’ they think you are from the Middle Ages. Like, ‘WHAT? Don’t you have a computer?’”

Similar reactions were reported by young Internet ex-users (those who had been online before but had discontinued use) in a study conducted by Rebecca Eynon and Anne Geniets from the University of Oxford’s Internet Institute.

Younger generations are often considered "digital natives" who grew up surrounded by digital media and the Internet and are thus expected to be tech-savvy and always “on.” The peer pressure to be an Internet user in younger age groups can be especially high, with a high social desirability of being online. This can leave non-users feeling like outsiders who do not fit in with the rest of the group.

However, these feelings are not reserved to younger non-users. Some older interviewees in our study reported feeling “out of it” and one female interviewee in her mid-50s said that she feels it is something that she should be doing because “Well, because I’m missing out … I haven’t kept up with the times. It’s an essential part of life these days, isn’t it?!”

Feeling stigmatized

Feeling stigmatized for being offline can, in some instances, be as strong as the stigma connected to being illiterate. Similar to adults who have problems reading and writing, those who are offline in our society report feelings of being outsiders and many are embarrassed to even talk about it.

Our study of Swedish and British non-users demonstrated men’s particular problems with digital illiteracy. Men were more reluctant to reveal their issues with Internet skills and some even refused to be interviewed about their non-use. When we asked one of our female interviewees whether we could talk to her husband, who was also a non-user, her response was clear: “He probably won’t because he won’t admit that he can’t do computers. He’s a man, you know.”

Feelings of inadequacy and stigma were also revealed in a qualitative study that we did with prisoners who were living in a work-out unit and working in the communities in preparation for their upcoming release from prison. As they had been behind bars for a long time, these men had not had any exposure to digital technologies and the Internet before, or if so, only marginally. Now that they were preparing for their life back in the community, many of them explained that their almost forced engagement with touch screens (e.g. at the supermarket check-out or gas station) was uncomfortable and exciting at the same time. Many of them felt that their lack of familiarity with smartphones, the Internet, and touch-screen technologies was a sure giveaway of their time in prison. They felt stupid having to ask their friends and family for help all the time, and some even described themselves as cavemen.

Changing the discourse

If we can remove the stigma of being offline, we can normalize non-users’ experiences rather than making them feel uncomfortable and silencing their experiences

To tackle the issues of feeling stigmatized and left out and to prevent (or reverse) making the topic of digital illiteracy and non-use a taboo—similar to traditional illiteracy—we need to change the discourse about Internet use and non-use.

While all the initiatives that talk about everyone being better off if everyone is online are well-meaning, they leave those who are offline—for whatever reason—feeling they are abnormal and they are not doing something they should be doing.

As mentioned earlier, attitudes toward technologies as well as motivations to use them have a strong impact on whether non-users make the move online or not. If we combine the importance of these attitudes and motivations with the message that we are currently sending to those who are offline (i.e. that they are the “odd ones out”), it is unsurprising that lack of interest and relevance are some of the most-mentioned reasons for being offline. This, however, gives us a misleading conception of reasons for non-use, which are often framed as a lack of “relevance”.

Adopting Mike Cushman’s words from almost a decade ago:

“We must avoid sending a message that those who are not proficient users of [information and communications technology (ICT)] are somehow inadequate, lazy or lacking understanding of the ‘modern’ world and that they will be left behind ‘stranded’. This message is often internalized by people. Some are motivated to learn to use ICT by fear of being left behind, but others are simply left feeling inadequate.”

Instead, we should focus on the context of non-use and opportunities to increase accessibility (reducing cost, increasing infrastructures) and provide usage opportunities that make sense in specific settings (e.g. providing context-specific skills training).

If we can remove the stigma of being offline (in the same way that we should remove the stigma of being illiterate), we can allow non-users to speak up about being offline and normalize their experiences rather than making them feel uncomfortable and silencing their experiences.

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.

By Bibi Reisdorf.