Old horses, new tricks
Last month I wrote about how children from poorer families may be losing out in education due to limited access to the internet. This month the labour force survey data from the Office of National Statistics raises equally valid questions about access for adults.
It is easy to think, in this day and age, that everyone has internet access. Magazines are disappearing from the shelves and reinventing themselves as online only publications. Media companies like HMV and Blockbuster are closing stores because customers are turning to download for music and film. Banks want to switch from printed statements to paperless online banking. And government wants to put more and more services such as tax returns, vehicle licensing and benefit forms online and cut out the paper. You could be forgiven for thinking that the vast majority of adults these days must be internet users of some description.
But is that assumption true? The December 2012 ONS survey reveals that of around 50.5 million adults aged 16 and over living in the UK, it is estimated that 43 million (85%) have used the internet at sometime in their lives, (but are not necessarily regular users), whilst 7.5 million (15%) have never used it at all. The size of that non-user group fell by just 200,000 during 2012. Men are slightly more likely to be internet users (87%) than women, (83%), and there is the predictable affluence-related regional variation, with highest levels of usage in London (89%) and the lowest in Northern Ireland (79%). More troubling though is the breakdown of the 7.5 million adults who never use the internet.
One noticeable split is age-related. The survey found that almost everyone in the 16 to 44 age group had used the internet at some time, as have around 90% of those in the 45 to 64 age group, but at 65 the numbers start to drop off. Only 70% of the 65 to 74 age group are net users, and only 30% of the over 75s. This is unfortunate because it is also these older age groups who stand to benefit more from easier access to government information about pensions and benefits, who have more need of access to online health information, and who are more likely to need accessible information such as larger print to cope with failing eyesight. These are all the things the net should be good at.
The other notable group making up the 7.5 million non-users are people with disabilities. The survey estimates that around half of those 7.5 million are disabled in some way, meaning they are vastly over-represented compared to the general population. This is even more unfortunate because the internet is such a good enabling technology, not just for government forms and health information, but also for social needs, communication, engagement with the community, and employment.
What this survey cannot answer is why these two groups are over-represented. Is it the result of prejudices, of us all being guilty of reinforcing ideas that someone is "too old to understand computers"? Or is it because we talk a good game about building accessible websites and having legislation such as the Disability Discrimination Act, but still not actually providing sites which are accessible and contain the information people want? Or is it because connectivity is heavily influenced by commercial imperatives, and the purse holders see it as more important to provide free WiFi in city coffee shops than it is to get basic access to everyone?
Whatever the reasons, 7.5 million adults who don't use it at all, and even more who don't use it regularly, is a much bigger number than most of us expected. For the full ONS report and demographic breakdowns, see:
25th February 2013
This article comes from the SKILLZONE email newsletter, published monthly since January 2008, and covering topics related to technology and the internet. All articles and artwork in the SKILLZONE newsletter are orignal content. If you would like to receive the newsletter direct to your inbox each month, please SUBSCRIBE here. It is free, and you don't get added to any other mailing lists. It uses best-practice confirmed opt-in only, and you may unsubscribe at any time.