Americans use Internet more than ever, but adoption remains unequal

A new report suggests that average Americans rely on the World Wide Web more than ever

Increasing numbers of Americans don't want to give up the Internet they use at work and to find work. Here Antonio Vallarta shows unemployed Californians how to conduct an online job search in Arcadia on Oct. 2, 2009.
David McNew/Getty Images

As the Internet nears its 25th birthday, one thing is certain: Many Americans can’t live without it.

Internet adoption in the US since 1995/Pew Research Center

Nearly 87 percent of American adults now use the Internet, according to new report from the Pew Research Center, up from 14 percent in 1995 when the center first started conducting public opinion polling on the adoption of new communication technologies. While 42% of American adults said they had never even heard of the Internet 1995, Pew's analysis shows that the vast majority now enjoy its benefits on a daily basis. 

The report comes ahead of the 25th anniversary of computer scientist Tim Berners-Lee’s ‘Information Management: A Proposal,' the March 1989 paper that outlined, as Pew says, the “conceptual and architectural” structure of what would eventually become the World Wide Web. While basic communication networks between computers had been developed by government programs in the early 1960s, Berners-Lee’s vision of the Web was an essential landmark in the development of the modern Internet most ordinary Americans use today.

But Pew’s research of American Internet use doesn’t only suggest widespread adoption, it reveals dependency as well: nearly 53 percent of Internet users say the Internet would be “very hard” to give up, up from 38 percent in 2006. Part of this is occupational: 61 percent of Americans who say it would be difficult to give up Internet access cite job-related functions although 30 percent say it would be difficult because they “simply enjoy being online.”

In fact, Americans would much rather give up their cell phones and televisions rather than sacrifice the connectivity offered by Internet access. 

Americans would rather give up their phones than anything else/Pew Research Center

Not only is the Internet increasingly essential for more Americans, they see it as an extremely positive influence on their lives. According to the survey,nearly 90 percent of Internet users say the Internet has been a good thing for them personally, with only 6 percent saying the Internet has been a negative influence. And despite common anecdotes about nasty online commenters and Internet abuse, nearly 70 percent of users say they have been treated generously by others online.

“The rise of the Web — and more broadly, the Internet — has been one of the most remarkable stories of technology adoption in history,” says Lee Rainie, Director of the Pew Research Center Internet Project. “The vast majority of users believe these technologies have made things better for them and for society. They see problems, to be sure, but most have now brought technology so deeply into the rhythms of their lives that they say it would be very hard to give up.”

Many Americans enjoy positive social experiences online/Pew Research Center

“Digital technologies have spread to every corner of the globe and most aspects of everyday life for users," said Rainie. But while it’s become easier (and more important) than ever for the majority of Americans to enjoy frequent connectivity, a significant sliver of the popular has been left behind.

“Looking back at the origins of the Web, we can see patterns of use and non-use that persist today,” says Susannah Fox, co-author of the Pew Research Center report. “A person’s level of education is still a primary factor in predicting whether she uses technology or not. And the younger someone is, the more likely it is that she uses technology. One constant is that users, whenever they start, say that digital communications tools strengthen their relationships.”

Age isn't the only major determinant of adoption: The explosion of Internet use in the past two decades is nothing short of astonishing, but the specter of social and economic inequality persist.

Adoption is highest among those Americans making more than $75,000 a year (99 percent), and college-educated citizens between the ages of 18-29 are by far the fastest and most fervent adopters.

By contrast, the less well-off segments of society aren’t able to enjoy the same positive benefits: only 77 percent of Americans earning below $30,000 a year regularly use computers in the U.S. Recent research on the “digital divide” published by Pew in November 2013 notes that, for millions of African-American and Hispanic citizens, smartphones serve as a common alternative to expensive broadband-connected personal computers as the primary way to use the Internet.

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