Are Internet non-users a volunteer underclass?

It’s hard to believe, but many Americans are still not online.  How can this be and why? We expose the myths and explore the murky reality.

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By Harlan Lebo

When people learn that we study issues that affect Americans who do not use the internet, I frequently get the response, “did you find any?”

In today’s digital culture, accepting the notion that non-users exist at all is indeed difficult.

For internet users, it’s nearly impossible to imagine how non-users live in a world where “just Google it” doesn’t mean anything, where “ping me on Skype” is nonsense, where it’s impossible to send a quick question to a friend or coworker via email, where a check of breaking news on media websites isn’t an option, or where ordering something on Amazon isn’t the go-to when they want something but don’t feel like going to go to the store.

Most recent national surveys characterize internet use as reaching “near-universal’ levels. The Center’s new Digital Future Study found 92% of Americans go online, and other research suggests even more.

But near-universal is a long way from universal. The 8% of Americans who are non-users represent, in real terms, a formidable number: in 2017, more than 26 million Americans still do not go online. In other words, a group about the size of the combined populations of New York and Pennsylvania has no access to the primary communications tool of our age.

Moreover, our work has also shown that most of the non-users have no intention of going online anytime soon.

Why are millions of Americans still not online? The Digital Future Studies conducted by the Center since 2000 explore not only what users do online, but also the specific questions that explain non-use. The Center’s current findings (the 2017 report will be released September 13) in combination with previous 14 studies since 2000 offer some clarity, and also scatter some of the conventional wisdom.

Mythbusting: what non-use isn’t

The findings in the Digital Future Studies magnify several particularly compelling issues that are not the reasons why people are non-users.

First on the list of overturned conventions about non-use is “people don’t go online because they can’t afford it.” For more than two decades, the expense of using the internet has been a constant source of debate among politicians and social theorists, a droning refrain that was frequently employed to explain the so-called “digital divide.”

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As just one example of life dysfunction caused by not going online, consider the Social Security Administration, which now offers application forms for some basic benefits only online or at an office. These forms are no longer available by mail. 

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But whether non-users represent one-third of the nation as in 2000, or the 8% we identified this year, every Digital Future Study since the project began 17 years ago shows only a trivial percentage of non-users cite expense as their reason for not being online. Those numbers have been remarkably consistent, varying by only a few percentage points over almost two decades. Coincidentally, the number of non-users who use expense as their reason for not going online is the same in 2017 as it was in 2000: about 9%.

A lack of personal time to go online is not the issue either. Americans who cite
“no time” or “too busy” as their reason for not being online represent only a trickle – usually less than 3%; in the new Digital Future Study, the number of respondents who cited that reason dropped to zero.

Is old age the focus of the problem? No. There is no support for the cruel rationale spouted by some observers that says 1) the non-user topic is solely an issue of aging America and 2) because of this we don’t need to worry because it’s a self-regulating problem that will soon disappear as they die.

Yes, a greater percentage of older Americans are non-users than other age groups, but internet use among seniors continues to increase.

And, a focus on older Americans can blind observers to another important fact: measureable percentages of non-users can be found in every age range, including about 6% of those age 35 to 54.

Lack of will and dropping out

So if age, money, and limited time fail to explain the full story of non-use, then what does?

A handful of overlapping reasons coalesce around a lack of will. Across our research we see three main reasons for non-use of the internet. First, 39% — the biggest reason — simply do not have a computer, which is different than the expense of going online. Second, 27% of non-users do not understand the technology. Third, 17% of non-users have “no interest” in going online — unimaginable as that explanation is for anybody reading this column via a web browser on a personal computer, tablet, or phone.

These views are not going away; in fact, each of these responses in our current findings are larger than those in the previous year’s Digital Future Study.

Is there hope that non-users will become users? For more than 90% the answer is “no,” or at best “probably not.” 62% of non-users said they are “not likely at all” to go online in the next year, and 30% say they are only “somewhat likely” to do so.

What complicates any easy explanation of internet non-use is the fact that many non-users have experience going online– so they understand what they are missing and don’t care. “Internet dropouts” represent more than one-quarter of non-users (27% in the new study).

The cost of non-use

It is, of course, a matter of individual choice for Americans to stay offline, but at what cost?

The decision to be a non-user might have been more understandable 20 years ago, when the internet was a handy toy, but today the internet is usually the first stop for any activity– a near-requirement for navigating every aspect of daily life in the United States.

If being a non-user in 2017 only resulted in the minor social consequence of not having, say, a Facebook account, then this issue would be less compelling. But non-users pay an increasingly expensive price as they become distanced from services, information, and communications that are available primarily or only online, or at growing inconvenience offline.

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If age, money, and limited time fail to explain the full story of non-use, then what does?  A handful of overlapping reasons coalesce around a lack of will. Thirty-nine percent of non-users simply do not have a computer, 27% of non-users do not understand the technology, and 17% have “no interest” in going online — unimaginable as that is for anybody reading this column via a web browser on a personal computer, tablet, or phone. 

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As just one example of life dysfunction caused by not going online, consider the Social Security Administration, which now offers application forms for some basic benefits only online or at an office. These forms are no longer available by mail.

As a result, because non-users cannot complete a 10-minute online application for some of America’s most fundamental social benefits, their sole alternative is travelling to a Social Security office — and coping with the inevitable lines and layers of bureaucracy — to accomplish the same task.

Is visiting a government office such a big deal? Perhaps not, but as basic services and information requests continue the shift to as the default, for non-users the pileup of disconnection will mount.

If applying for a basic Social Security application is challenging today for those who are offline, imagine the plight of the non-user in five years when trying to apply for retirement benefits, connect with government agencies, or conduct business with a bank, retailer, doctor, or any other online resource that is part of the daily and routine American experience for internet users.

The voluntary underclass

Also increasingly problematic are the financial questions that may emerge because of the needs of non-users. In other words, do non-users create larger burdens for the public and private sector alike because resources unnecessary in the digital realm – increased staff for in-person services, paper documents instead of online forms, etc. – are required to accommodate them? Let’s hope not. But it is possible that the rest of us will incur more social and financial costs because non-users resist going online.

These questions are evolving, and the answers are still foggy. What becomes clearer every day is that non-users are choosing to join a permanent social underclass of the disconnected and underserved. As internet use inexorably heads to universality, non-users become progressively more marginalized because of their choice to stay offline.

Will the list of opportunities missed by non-users keep growing?  Yes. Without question.
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Harlan Lebo is an author, communications consultant, and senior fellow at the Center. He tracks the evolving questions that affect no-cost and low-cost technology and software.

 

 

 

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September 6, 2017