The Internet and the Pandemic
Results from a new survey of US adults reveal the extent to which people’s use of the internet has changed during the COVID-19 pandemic, their views about how helpful technology has been for them and the struggles some have faced. The vast majority of adults (90%) say the internet has been at least important to them personally during the pandemic, the survey finds. The share who say it has been essential – 58% – is up slightly from 53% in April 2020. There have also been upticks in the shares who say the internet has been essential in the past year among those with a bachelor’s degree or more formal education, adults under 30, and those 65 and older. A large majority of Americans (81%) also say they talked with others via video calls at some point since the pandemic’s onset. And for 40% of Americans, digital tools have taken on new relevance: They report they used technology or the internet in ways that were new or different to them. Some also sought upgrades to their service as the pandemic unfolded: 29% of broadband users did something to improve the speed, reliability or quality of their high-speed internet connection at home since the beginning of the outbreak. Still, tech use has not been an unmitigated boon for everyone. “Zoom fatigue” was widely speculated to be a problem in the pandemic, and some Americans report related experiences in the new survey: 40% of those who have ever talked with others via video calls since the beginning of the pandemic say they have felt worn out or fatigued often or sometimes by the time they spend on them. Moreover, changes in screen time occurred for Americans generally and for parents of young children. The survey finds that a third of all adults say they tried to cut back on time spent on their smartphone or the internet at some point during the pandemic. In addition, 72% of parents of children in grades K-12 say their kids are spending more time on screens compared with before the outbreak.
- The digital divides related to internet use and affordability were highlighted by the pandemic and also emerged in new ways as life moved online. For all Americans relying on screens during the pandemic, connection quality has been important for school assignments, meetings and virtual social encounters alike. The new survey highlights difficulties for some: Roughly half of those who have a high-speed internet connection at home (48%) say they have problems with the speed, reliability or quality of their home connection often or sometimes.
- Affordability remained a persistent concern for a portion of digital tech users as the pandemic continued – about a quarter of home broadband users (26%) and smartphone owners (24%) said in the April 2021 survey that they worried a lot or some about paying their internet and cellphone bills over the next few months. From parents of children facing the “homework gap” to Americans struggling to afford home internet, those with lower incomes have been particularly likely to struggle. At the same time, some of those with higher incomes have been affected as well.
- Affordability and connection problems have hit broadband users with lower incomes especially hard. Nearly half of broadband users with lower incomes, and about a quarter of those with midrange incomes, say that as of April they were at least somewhat worried about paying their internet bill over the next few months.3 And home broadband users with lower incomes are roughly 20 points more likely to say they often or sometimes experience problems with their connection than those with relatively high incomes. Still, 55% of those with lower incomes say the internet has been essential to them personally in the pandemic.
The Internet and the Pandemic