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Remember Those Off the Grid

There was a recent Pew Research Center study that caught my eye. It reports that fully 11% of US adults do not use the Internet.

These days, social media communication platforms appear to play a more and more important role in politics, commerce, and friends’ network formation. But the study is a useful reminder that we may be misled by information solely based on these platforms when we’re forming impressions about the entire US adult population. In fact, for those of us who are nearly constantly using the Internet for our day-to-day life activities, it’s difficult to imagine that not everyone lives like we do. It’s easy to assume that reports about behaviors on the Internet represent everybody in the country.

Now, it’s important to note that the percentage of adults not using the Internet has dramatically declined over time, from 48% in 2000 to the 11% this year, using roughly the same survey method to generate the statistics. However, an increasing number of the statistics that the news media present to us each day, which we all use to form impressions of what the US public thinks about topics, are based on those with Internet connections.

So, what do we know about those who do not use the Internet? The study shows that they disproportionately are rural residents (the rural rate of nonuse is 22% versus urban rates of 8%). Part of this result is no doubt associated with the inadequate penetration of high speed Internet and spottier cellular services in rural areas. Indeed, much of attraction of the Internet comes with fast response and ubiquitous availability throughout the day.

Education attainment is another correlate of nonuse of the Internet, with adults having less than a high school education showing the highest rate of nonuse (35%). Since lower education attainment is also correlated with lower income, the study also finds that the lowest income group reported (those earning less than $30,000 per year) are nonusers at a 19% rate. With these two attributes combined, one is reminded that Internet use costs money out of one’s personal budget each month, and Internet connection also has greater value to those desiring ubiquitous, continuous access to information sources.

Finally, age is correlated with nonuse. Thirty-four percent of the highest age group reported, 65 years old and older does not use the Internet. As this group passes out of the population, there will be dramatic changes in the rate of nonuse (the next highest age group, 50-64 year olds, have only 13% nonusers). It’s easy to speculate that in 10 years or so, the 11% overall nonusers will dramatically decrease.

The study shows a fascinating lack of correlation between Internet use and race/ethnicity, especially when one considers that income differences among such groups.

So, what does all this mean? We need to be careful to remember that, for the time being, conclusions reached about US adults based on Internet behaviors miss 1/10 of the population. This 11% is older, poorer, less educated, and more rural than the rest of the population. When an Internet study describes behaviors that we would expect to vary across age, urbanicity, income, and education groups, we should be cautious about the conclusion. So, the next time we see a report on what is circulating on Facebook, what popular searches are for Google, and what’s trending on Twitter, remember that 11% of the population is completely divorced from such behaviors. It’s important to read the details of how the data were collected before accepting the headline of the story.

One thought on “Remember Those Off the Grid

  1. Interesting Points. Might help somewhat to explain the misread of trump’s support in the last election. That 11% more rural, older and less education etc. More “ off the grid “ .

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