In 1995, only about one in 10 adults in the U.S. were going online.2 As of August 2011, the U.S. internet population includes 78% of adults (and 95% of teenagers).3 Certain aspects of the current internet population still strongly resemble the state of internet adoption in 2000, when one of Pew Internet’s first reports found that minorities, adults living in households with lower incomes, and seniors were less likely than others to be online. “Those who do not use the Internet often do not feel any need to try it, some are wary of the technology, and others are unhappy about what they hear about the online world,” the report concluded.4
As of 2011, internet use remains strongly correlated with age, education, and household income, which are the strongest positive predictors of internet use among any of the demographic differences we studied. Yet while gaps in internet adoption persist, some have narrowed in the past decade—as shown in the table below.
The internet access gap closest to disappearing is that between whites and minorities. Differences in access persist, especially in terms of adults who have high-speed broadband at home, but they have become significantly less prominent over the years5–and have disappeared entirely when other demographic factors (including language proficiency) are controlled for.
Ultimately, neither race nor gender are themselves part of the story of digital differences in its current form. Instead, age (being 65 or older), a lack of a high school education, and having a low household income (less than $20,000 per year) are the strongest negative predictors for internet use. Our survey in the summer of 2011 was also offered to respondents in both English and Spanish; those who chose to take the survey in Spanish were also notably less likely to use the internet than those who chose English.
Yet even groups that have persistently had the lowest access rates have still seen significant increases over the past decade. In 2000, for instance, we found that there existed “a pronounced ‘gray gap’ as young people go online and seniors shun the internet.” Adults age 65 and older are still significantly less likely to use the internet than other groups, but now 41% of them use the internet. In 2000, over five times as many adults under 30 used the internet as did adults 65 and older, but as of 2011 young adults’ adoption levels are only a little over twice that of the 65-and-over age group.
Along with age, educational attainment represents one of the most pronounced gaps in internet access. Some 43% of adults who have not completed high school use the internet, versus 71% of high school graduates—and 94% of college graduates. Household income is also a strong predictor of internet use, as only six in ten (62%) of those living in households in the lowest income bracket (less than $30,000 per year) use the internet, compared with 90% of those making at least $50,000-74,999 and 97% of those making more than $75,000.6 Educational attainment and household income continue to be strongly correlated not only with internet adoption, but also with a wide range of internet activities and ownership of a number of devices.
Why one in five American adults does not use the internet
Back in 2000, a majority of adults did not use the internet and many non-users felt that that the internet was “a dangerous thing”—54% believed this, especially seniors and those with less than a high school education. Some 39% said that internet access is too expensive (particularly young adults under age 30, Hispanics, and those with less than a high school education), and 36% expressed concern that the internet “is confusing and hard to use,” especially those with a high school education or less.7
More recent research by the Pew Internet Project has shown that among current non-internet users, almost half (48%) say the main reason they don’t go online now is because they don’t think the internet is relevant to them—often saying they don’t want to use the internet and don’t need to use it to get the information they want or conduct the communication they want. About one in five (21%) mention price-related reasons, and a similar number cite usability issues (such as not knowing how to go online or being physically unable to). Only 6% say that a lack of access or availability is the main reason they don’t go online. 8
Most of these non-users have never used the internet before, and don’t have anyone in their household who does. About one in five (21%) say that they know enough about technology to start using the internet on their own, and only one in ten told us that they were interested in using the internet or email in the future.
Why four in ten American adults do not have a high-speed broadband connection at home
In February 2001, when about half of adults were online, only 4% of American households had broadband access; as of August 2011, about six in ten American adults (62%) have a high-speed broadband connection at home.9 Men are more likely than women to have home broadband, and whites are more likely than minorities. We also see clear patterns in home broadband adoption by age, household income, and education.
Having broadband strongly affects how one uses the internet, especially as multimedia elements such as video become more and more popular. Even back in 2002 we found that dial-up users take part in an average of 3 online activities per day, while broadband users take part in 7.10
In the spring of 2009, we asked adults who had dial-up internet what it would take for them to switch to a broadband connection at home. A plurality (35%) said the price would have to fall, and 17% said it would have to become available where they live. One in five (20%) said nothing would get them to change.11
By 2010, while national adoption had slowed, growth in broadband adoption among African Americans jumped well above the national average, with 22% broadband adoption growth since the previous year. 12 Even with these gains, however, minorities are still less likely than whites to have home broadband overall. And foreign-born and Spanish-dominant Latinos trail not only whites but also native and English-speaking Latinos. In our August 2011 survey, 62% of all American adults have high-speed internet access at home, including two thirds (66%) of whites and roughly half of African Americans (49%) and Hispanics (51%).
However, as with internet adoption in general, the most persistent demographic differences in home broadband access continue to center around age, household income, and educational attainment. Looking at the groups with the lowest levels of home broadband access, we see adoption levels of 22% for adults who have not completed high school, 30% for seniors age 65 and older, and 41% for those who live in households making less than $30,000 per year. This is compared with 85% of college graduates, 76% of adults under age 30, and 89% of those making at least $75,000 per year.
Americans living with a disability and their internet profile
Finally, there is one difference in internet access that does not often show up in standard demographic tables, and that is the one facing the roughly one in four adults in the United States (27%) who live with a disability that interferes with activities of daily living.13
There are many factors associated with disability that are generally associated with lower internet use—such as being older, being less educated, and living in a lower-income household. When we control for all of these demographic factors, however, we still find that living with a disability in and of itself is negatively correlated with the likelihood that someone has internet access. Some 54% percent of adults living with a disability use the internet, compared with 81% of adults without a disability.
High-speed internet access is also an issue. People living with disability, once they are online, are also less likely than other internet users to have home broadband or wireless access. For instance, 41% of adults living with a disability have broadband at home, compared with 69% of those without a disability.
Finally, a disability or illness itself might be a factor in preventing internet use; 2% of American adults say they have a disability or illness that makes it more difficult—or impossible—for them to use the internet.