Senior Science Writer
David provides advice and editorial services to the OII faculty, and writes commissioned content for our publications.
I have posted below the comments I prepared for a panel on ‘Young People and the Digital Divide‘, organized by Catch22 at the Liberal Democrat Autumn Conference, Liverpool (20 September 2010), during which I talked about OxIS research on youth use and non-use of the Internet:
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In Britain as a whole, 17% of young people did not have access to the Internet in 2009: these people I call ‘non-users’.
One common perception of young people is that they are ‘digital natives’, meaning they are comfortable and adept at using computers and the Internet. This perception partially stems from the fact that more young people (about 83%) are online than older people (about 70%). This difference is almost entirely accounted for by students: all of whom have Internet access. Young non-students use the Internet less than any other group except retired people.
The first important characteristic of non-users is their job – mostly they don’t have one.
This difference–almost 50 percentage points–is so large that you could say that the entire story is about jobs:that lack of employment is the real problem that underlies youth non-use of the Internet.
There is a further problem:
The point is, it is easier to get a job if you have Internet access. For the non-employed, lack of access makes it much harder to get a job.
This is a real Catch 22 situation…
Having a job is important for self-worth and identity. It is not only psychologically important; socially, a job integrates people into social networks, and a job is a key link to society. People with jobs pay more taxes, commit fewer crimes, and contribute to society rather than draining resources. The Internet gives people access to jobs, and to the economic opportunity and social mobility that go with them.
A second characteristic I talked about was education. Everyone in school has Internet access, but non-users are not in school.
Non-users also tend to be less well educated: 82% of non-users have at best a secondary school education and none have a postgraduate university education, whereas 29% of users have only a secondary education and 25% have a post-graduate degree.
This 53% point gap is a serious problem. The United Kingdom is a knowledge economy, and globalisation and other powerful trends are pushing it to be even more knowledge intensive. For this kind of economy, education is central. People who are better educated are more likely to be employed, are likely to be paid more, their jobs are likely to be more stable, they are more likely to have stable marriages or partnerships, and (of particular interest to government) they are likely to pay more taxes.
Job opportunities for people with no more than a secondary school education have been declining, and are likely to continue to decline. Lack of education is a real barrier to jobs, and lack of Internet access just makes it worse.
Partly as a result of lack of employment and education, most non-users have very low incomes (65% live in households with incomes below £12,500 / year; compared to 28% of British youth as a whole). [See my earlier blog post: What is more important for Internet use: age or income?]
Low income is one reason that they have no Internet access at home: many simply can’t afford it. When asked for the most important reason, they respond: ‘cost’. By comparison, among larger population of British non-users, ‘lack of interest’ is most important.
One bright spot is youth interest and willingness to participate: 69% of young non-users would like to use the Internet in the future (this is far more than the rest of the population, in which only 19% of non-users would use the Internet in the future).
This has been considered so far here from the point of view of Internet users. From the viewpoint of providers, the Internet is attractive in part because it is an extremely efficient, low-cost way to deliver government services, educational opportunities, health information and employment information.
These are powerful incentives, especially in a time of reduced budgets. The Internet is a key to give people access to well-paying jobs, a good education, and a host of other benefits.
Effective policy must be inclusive, and must allow a diverse range of solutions to address availability, affordability, and skills. It is worth a major effort to include everyone on the Internet.