Thursday, June 12, 2008

Digital Divide in Canadian Internet Usage

A recent StatsCan survey discovered a digital divide in the use of the Internet across Canada: people who are younger, live in urban areas, make more money, and have more education, tend to use the Internet more often than those who are older, live in rural areas, make less money, and have less education. This isn't surprising: would you really have thought any different? But let's examine some of the potentially less-obvious reasons.

When it comes to living situation, it's possible that many of the people in rural areas simply don't have the option to use high-speed. 65% said they used the Internet vs. 76% of urban residents. Naturally, it isn't as enticing to use the 'net if it takes two-minutes to load every page versus a fraction of a second. It might also be linked to lifestyle: people who choose to live in rural areas often do so because they want to get away from the fast-paced life of the city. Part of the Internet's appeal is being able to access information quickly and when you want it. People don't tend to pore over stories on the 'net like they would a good book! Also, I'd argue that a large percentage of rural residents are older folks who, according to this survey, are also less likely to use the 'net (96% of 16-24 year olds vs. just 29% of those 65 and older).

What about income levels? Of those who made $95,000 or more, 91 per cent used the Internet; versus just 47% of those who made less than $24,000. One connection there might not be so obvious: it's not just about education level or interest. If you don't make as much money, you're less likely to indulge in frivolous expenses at home, like Internet usage.

As for education, 84% of those who have some post-secondary schooling use the 'net compared to 58% of those with less education. It's important to consider that the older generation wasn't exposed to computers at all, or not until they reached a higher level of education. So if they didn't go to college or university, they wouldn't have been exposed to the Internet at all, and thus never really caught on to the technology. This is especially so if the person now works in an environment where he doesn't directly use the Internet. My parents didn't learn about computers through school; but both had office jobs, and they picked up on the technology there. My uncle, however, who works as a car mechanic, was only ever exposed to the 'net when his grandson taught him how to use it.

Overall, the Statistics Canada study, which was conducted in October and November 2007, found that Internet usage rose across the board when compared to 2005, with BC, Alberta, and Ontario actually surpassing the national average of 73%.

So how do we increase usage rates going forward? Make the Internet more affordable and more accessible will help. New services like WiMAX will also make it easier to connect online from some rural areas.

In looking at the older generation, it would be beneficial for younger folks, whether friends, family members, or even sales associates, to take the time and explain the 'net to those who aren't familiar with it. Show them how easy it is to use. I recall years ago when my father would simply open up Internet Explorer, type in a search word into the address bar and then wonder why he was getting an error message. With the family's help, he's now a whiz at surfing online, sending e-mails, and even downloading music! Keep in mind that there will always be nay-sayers that want nothing to do with that dreaded "box" of a computer. But for those who want to learn, it's amazing what a little patience can do.

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