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A Surprising Look at Why One in Seven Adults Isn't Online

Bob Sullivan

Everyone is online, right?  Wrong. About one in seven U.S. adults don’t use email or the (not quite the whole) worldwide web, according to a poll published by Wednesday by the Pew Research Center.

Many in the disconnected crowd are older and poor, as one might expect.  But a large number of those who say they don’t go online — roughly one-third — simply choose to be offline, telling researchers they’re “just not interested,” or it’s not worth their time.

Most surprising, fully one-quarter of this offline group make a decision to stay unplugged on a daily basis, in their homes.  Pew calls them “Internet adjacent” — someone else in their household uses the Internet, but they resist.

Another 14 percent of the offline group say they were once Net users, but disconnected at some point.

“It would be really interesting to learn when they first [went] online, when they stopped, and why,” said researcher Kathryn Zickuhr, who wrote the study, based on a telephone poll conducted earlier this year.

The Digital Divide

One other concerning trend lurking in the data — the offline crowd cites “usability” as a reason they don’t go online much more than in the past. Some 28 percent said the web is too frustrating to use, or they were too old to learn, almost double the number from 2010, the last time the poll was taken. The digital divide isn’t about money, it’s about design, this suggests.

As web offerings become more rich and complex, we risk leaving more disconnected adults behind.

Even this offline group has its limits, however. Fully 44 percent of them have asked a friend or family member to go online on their behalf and look something up.

And while those who deliberately avoid email are a substantial group, millions of Americans are still shut out from the digital life by cost. Nearly 1 in 5 said they aren’t online because they don’t have a computer or the service is too pricey.  And 1 in 10 adults under 50 relies on Internet access outside the home, such as library kiosks.

“I think [what] is really interesting is how many adults use the Internet, but lack home access,” Zickuhr said. “For me, this really emphasizes the different experiences so many people have in accessing the Internet—not everyone sits down to a desktop or laptop at home and goes online with a broadband connection.”

Interestingly, privacy concerns aren’t much of a dissuader. Only 3 percent told researchers they avoided the web because of viruses, hackers, spam, or other privacy concerns.

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Who’s Not on the Net

In looking at who isn’t on the Internet, as one might expect, age is a factor. Nearly half of all the unplugged are over 65 — and fully 44 percent of Americans in that age group don’t use the Net.

Race, income, and education are predictors of online access, however. Hispanics and Blacks are more than twice as likely to rely on the web access outside the home.  While only 3 percent of college-educated Americans are stuck with library or similar access, 14 percent of those without a high school diploma are. About 13 percent of those earning less than $30,000 annually also must turn to libraries, compared to only 4 percent of those earning more than $75,000.

Zickuhr cautioned against using the results to argue that Net access simply isn’t for everyone. It’s likely many are disconnected for multiple reasons.

“We asked about the main reason offline adults don’t use the internet, and a lot of those reasons may interact and overlap… and to what extent can someone be sure the Internet isn’t relevant to them if they don’t have much experience with it?” she said.  ”Then again, the vast majority say they don’t want to go online in the future… lots of potential reasons for all of this.”

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