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UCLA World Internet Project Finds Gaps between Rich and Poor, Young and Old, Men and Women

UCLA World Internet Project Finds Gaps between Rich and Poor, Young and Old, Men and Women

Study of Internet usage in 14 countries profiles social habits of Internet users, quantifies gaps in usage by rich and poor, men and women, highly educated and high school graduates.

Leslie Evans Email LeslieEvans

"Clearly, use of the Internet is reducing television viewing around the world while having little impact on positive aspects of social life." Jeffrey Cole

How many people use the Internet? What effect has it had on their lives? Three UCLA faculty members have formed a consortium to study different aspects of the online phenomenon:

  • Jeffrey Cole, director of the Center for Communication Policy at the Anderson Graduate School of Management, is looking at the effects on individuals.
  • Uday Karmarkar, holder of the Times Mirror chair in Management Strategy and Policy at the Anderson School is studying the effects on organizations.
  • And Rajit Gadh, professor of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering, is looking at wireless technologies.

"Together," Jeffrey Cole writes, "the three paint a vivid portrait of how our world is changing."

The UCLA International Institute as part of its Global Impact Research grants this year awarded $84,000 to the three researchers for their consortium study, under the title "The Global Social and Organizational Effects of New Information Technologies." The first use of this grant money was to help complete the first set of international comparisons of individual Internet usage, building on four years of collection of data for the United States. The World Internet Project -- created and organized by the UCLA Center for Communication Policy, which also analyzed the international comparisons -- includes studies that were conducted primarily in 2002 and 2003 by universities and research institutes in Asia, Europe, Latin America, and the United States.

The initial findings of the World Internet Project were released in mid-January. Data availability varied from country to country, but comparisons on different issues could be made on anywhere from 9 to 14 countries. The results began with raw totals for Internet usage in different countries. This showed a wide disparity in the numbers who go online, ranging from highs of 71.1% and 66.1% of the population in the United States and Sweden, to lows of 24.2% and 17.5% in Taiwan and Hungary.

Men were more likely to use the Internet than women in every country surveyed with an average gender gap of 8%. And despite stereotypes of logged-in people as couch potato loners who substitute computers for books, Internet users spent more time in an average week socializing with friends than nonusers, exercised more, spent more time reading books (except in the United States), and watched less television. As might be expected the rich-poor gap on Internet usage was much bigger than the gender gap, as was the age gap, with under 24-year-olds much more likely to be Internet users than people over 55. Education was also a big predictor of Internet usage, with college educated people more likely to go online than those with only a high school degree in every country surveyed except Germany. Following are some of the detailed findings.

Countries Surveyed

The results of the World Internet Project study were presented in a series of graphs. These looked at a somewhat varying set of countries, but typically included the United States, Britain, Germany, Italy, Japan, South Korea, Spain, Sweden, Taiwan, and Hungary, as well as statelets Singapore and Macao. Some survey questions were also asked respondents in 12 cities in China, and a survey was taken in Chile in the city of Santiago.

Percent of Internet Users

Not surprisingly, the United States came out at the top, with 71.1% of its citizens regularly using the Internet. Sweden was next at 66.1%, but interestingly, South Korea followed at 60.9%, ahead of Britain at 59.2% and far ahead of Japan (50.4%), Germany (45.9%), Spain (36.4%), and Italy (31.2%). Taiwan, usually thought of as on a par with South Korea, lagged far behind at 24.2%. Singapore, at 40.8%, topped Spain and Italy, and Hungary lagged far behind at only 17.5%.

The Gender Gap

For most countries there was a small but significant gender gap. In most it was under 10 points: 73.1% male to 69.0% female in the United States or 50.4% male to 41.7% female in Germany. But in countries of southern Europe it was much larger: 41.7% male to only 21.5% female in Italy and 46.4% male to 27.2% female in Spain.

The Internet and Personal Contact

A series of questions explored whether the Internet had increased people's contact with family and friends or with others who shared their hobbies, politics, religion, or profession. Respondents were also quizzed on whether they had made friends on the Internet and if they had met any of these friends in person later.

Only minorities of Internet users, although sometimes significant ones, said they increased their contacts with family and friends: from a high of 44.4% of users in the United States to19% in Italy, 11.4% in Germany, and 8.1% in urban China. In contrast, 47.2% of urban Chinese users said they had strengthened contacts with people who shared their hobbies or recreational activities, and for most countries sampled this ranged between 13% and 26%. Except for China, again, where 21.1% of urban Internet users said the Internet put them in contact with people who shared their political interests, the numbers in the rest of the world were under 10% everywhere, as were questions about contacts with coreligionists. Professional contacts, however, were relatively high everywhere, generally in the high 20 percents to the low 30 percents.

People did acknowledging making friends on the Internet, but not very many. The data on this was skimpy, covering only a few countries, but the average in the United States was 2.6;  in South Korea, 3.2; in Japan, 1.1; and in urban China, again the high spot, 7.7. Similarly skimpy data tracked who had met in person someone they had first contacted on the Internet. In the USA this was 0.8, in Spain, 2.3; in South Korea, 1.9; in Japan 0.6; and in urban China 2.0.

Are Internet Users Antisocial Loners?

Interestingly Internet users in all countries spent more time per week socializing with friends than nonusers. Americans were near the bottom on how much time they spent with friends, and Internet users edged out nonusers by only a hair, at 8.4 hours a week compared to 8.2 for the computer challenged. In Sweden, however, users racked up 10.5 hours with friends compared to 8.9 for nonusers. In Taiwan, the most social country sampled, Internet users spent a whopping 23 hours a week of conviviality compared to the still notable 18.1 hours for nonusers. In Britain the score was users 11.7 to nonusers 10.0.

Internet users were also more athletic. Only in Japan did users and nonusers spend an equal amount of time in the gym. Everywhere else, at least for the countries sampled -- Germany, Hungary, South Korea, Macao, Singapore, Sweden, and the USA -- the computerists had the clear lead in physical fitness, although in most countries by less than an hour lead. Typical was Germany, where Internet aficionados worked out for 4.8 hours a week compared to 4.0 for nonusers. One might guess, however, that these results may reflect the fact that younger people are more likely to be logged in than older people.

A less age-affected result, however, was on hours per week spent reading books. In all the countries sampled except the United States and Germany, Internet users also spent more time reading books every week than nonusers, although this may in turn correlate to the fact that Internet users are generally better educated than nonusers. As a general cultural sounding, however, the numbers as a whole did not look too good for the current state of literacy. In the United States, Internet users spent 4.7 hours a week reading books; nonusers 5.4; in Sweden, users racked up 5.0 hours compared to nonusers' 3.9. Singapore showed the largest gap, with users reading 6.3 hours a week compared to 2.1 for nonusers. But in Germany users read only 2.3 hours a week and nonusers 2.5. Japan and South Korea were at the bottom, with Japanese users reading books 2.6 hours a week and nonusers 1.6, South Korean users 1.9 and nonusers 1.2.

Television watching far surpassed book reading in every country, sometimes by a magnitude of 10 or even 20, a finding worth considering in its own right. But in that picture, nonusers topped Internet users in every country sampled. "The first three years of the UCLA Internet Project have shown that Internet users in America 'buy' their time to go online from the hours they once spent watching television," Jeffrey Cole said. "Now we are seeing the same trend worldwide. Clearly, we are witnessing a huge change in behavior that we are only now beginning to explore."

Some examples: Internet users in the United States watch 11.6 hours of TV a week; nonusers 16.8. In Germany it is 18.3 compared to 22.9; and in Japan, the computer savvy spend 20.9 hours a week in front of the tube while the nonwired group spend 26.3 -- 21 times the amount of time they devote to book reading.

"We found some online behavior is remarkably consistent worldwide," said Cole. "Clearly, use of the Internet is reducing television viewing around the world while having little impact on positive aspects of social life, most Internet users generally trust the information they find online and Internet use is having a major impact on life in urban China."

The Internet in China

China, as the figures above indicate, stood out from the pack for the importance of the Internet in disseminating ideas and putting people in touch with one another. The survey there covered 12 cities with a population above 100,000 each. Among the findings about urban China:

  • Politics -- More than twice as many Internet users in China compared to any other surveyed country say that the Internet increases their contact with people who share their political interests.
  • Hobbies and recreation -- Significantly more Internet users in China compared to any other surveyed country report that the Internet has increased their contact with people who share their hobbies or recreational interests.
  • Religion -- 11.2% of Internet users in China say that the Internet increases their contact with people who share their religion -- more than in any other country and a significant figure for citizens of a nation in which religion officially is banned.
  • Online friends -- Internet users in China report an average of 7.7 online friends who they have never met in person -- more than twice as many as any other surveyed country.

Does the Internet Empower People and Lead to Political Reforms?

Several questions probed possible effects of Internet usage on participatory democracy. One asked, "Do you think by using the Internet, people like you can have more say about what the government does?" By generally large majorities respondents said no to this.  53.2% of Americans questions replied in the negative, and 72.5% of respondents in social democratic Sweden said no. In Hungary the nos had a resounding 79.9%. People were nearly as negative, except in the United States, when asked if the Internet could help them to better understand politics. 45.9% of Italians queried said no, as did 50.4% of Spaniards and 61.6% of Swedes. These responses were separate from the issue of whether people felt that, by and large, it is possible to find truthful and reliable information on the Internet. In answering a question about this, large majorities said they trusted information found online.

The Digital Divide between Rich and Poor

The World Internet Project probed within the totals for each country that use the Internet, what percentage of the rich do so compared to what percentage of the poor. In the United States, for example, while overall usage is 71.1%, some 89.8% of the richest quarter of the population use the net while only 43.1% of the poorest quarter do so. In Sweden this is 93.4% compared to 49.1. Britain and Germany had among the sharpest divides, at 81.1% of the well off compared to only 24.4% of the poor in Britain and 62.9% of the top quartile in Germany compared to 27.8% of the poorest. In Hungary, where overall usage is low, only 1.6% of the poorest group ever sees the Internet although 24.3% of the best off group does so.

How Much Time Do People Spend Logged In?

While it is firmly established as a regular activity and gets far more time than reading books, the Internet is not yet challenging television for the lion's share of leisure time. In home usage the average hours per week ranged from a low of 1.9 in Hungary to a high of 8.3 in Singapore, with the U.S. at 6.8, Spain at 6.5, South Korea at 8.0, Italy at 6.1, Germany at 7.9, and Santiago, Chile, at 6.2. Total usage jumps into the 10-15 hour range, but some of this is presumably work related.

The Next Generation Will Be Big Time Internet Users

One very interesting graph tracked Internet usage by age. This gives a very different picture from the total numbers for the same countries, and promises that when the younger generation reaches middle age that the numbers will grow appreciably. For example, while total usage in the United States is now at 71.1% of the population, among those in the 16-24 age group it is 90.8%.  In South Korea the figures are even more dramatic: where the country as a whole has 60.9% Internet usage, among the under 24 group 95.1% are online now. Similarly for Britain, whose overall usage is now only 59.2%, but whose young people are 80.1% logged in.

Education Correlates to Internet Usage

Just as youth are much bigger fans of online communication that their elders, so are the highly educated. Except for Germany, in all other countries sampled there is a very significant gap between Internet use by those with college degrees and those without. In the United States this is an 87.1% to 61.0% gap; in Japan it is 70.1% compared to only 45.7%; in Italy, 77.3% compared to 53.5%; and in Britain, 88.1% compared to 64.4%.

Graphs for Report Available Online

The full set of graphs presenting these first international comparisons of the World Internet Project are available at the Center for Communication Policy website.

Project director Jeffrey Cole says that the International Institute Global Impact Research grant was used to conduct the international comparisons and to compensate the graduate students who did this. He adds that while researchers from many countries took part in the study, the whole fourteen-country project is administered from UCLA. Other elements of the consortium study, on the effect of the Internet on organizations and the importance of wireless technologies will be forthcoming in the months ahead.

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