The Office for National Statistics’ publication of its Social Trends data yesterday was a landmark in the sense that it was the first to include a chapter on e-Society, which discussed the use of the internet among different social groups. There are some illuminating findings about inter-generational differences in internet access and use. Overall, the data showed that internet access has risen significantly in recent years across all age groups. For most household types, the rate of internet connection increased by 40 percentage points between 2000 and 2008. However, among older households (specifically one-person households above the state pension age) the increase has been slower, at only 26 percentage points.
Older households remain significantly less likely to have an internet connection. In fact they are only half as likely. Among one-person households below the state pension age, 79 per cent have internet access. Among one-person households above the state pension, only 37 per cent do so.
Furthermore, older people who do have access surf the web less frequently. While 78% of all internet users log on every day, only 59% of older users (above 65) do this. It’s also interesting to see how popular ‘social networking’ is among different generations. Recent Ofcom research cited by ONS shows that while 38% of all internet users have a profile page on a social networking website (Facebook, Myspace, Bebo, and so on), the proportion decreases with age. Only 8% of users over 55 have a profile page. One potential tool to combat social isolation in a vulnerable group of the population has not yet caught on to any great extent, it seems.The salient question is why this generational digital divide exists. Researchers have described first-order and second-order divides: while the former stems from unequal access to the technology (computers, modems, cabling), the latter is a consequence of inequality in the distribution of skills and knowledge of how to use the technology.
It is true that technologies are unevenly distributed. For instance, rural areas have less well-developed infrastructure for high-speed broadband than cities do. (We should not forget: this issue effectively determined the outcome of the recent Australian general election.) As rural areas are home to relatively high numbers of older people, this may be a factor explaining low internet use.
However, it may well be that non-material factors are bigger determinants of internet usage. The Social Trends data suggests this. In a survey asking people why they do not access the internet at home, the most popular answers were that the respondent had no need to use the internet, or that they lacked the skills to do so. This corresponds with other recent research that suggests there are much bigger inequalities in knowledge of the internet than in access to the internet. This suggests a need to re-focus efforts to tackle the digital divide, for older people especially.
1. See http://www.statistics.gov.uk/articles/social_trends/e-society-2010.pdf
2. See http://stakeholders.ofcom.org.uk/binaries/research/media-literacy/adult_ml.pdf
3. See http://www.ftu-namur.org/fichiers/FTU-Second_order_digital_divide-Synthesis.pdf
4. See http://arstechnica.com/tech-policy/news/2010/09/fiber-lives-on-how-broadband-decided-australias-election.ars
5. See http://bjsw.oxfordjournals.org/content/39/4/754
Richard Berry is a public policy researcher