U.S. life in flux as Internet grows

Internet users in the U.S. are concerned about online privacy and security, they enjoy a healthy social life despite increased time spent surfing the Web, and watch less television when they have access to the Internet, according to results of a two-year study on Internet usage released Thursday.

Researchers at the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA) detailed findings of an ongoing study that aims to chronicle the effects of e-mail and the Internet on the culture and economy of the U.S.

“Has the Internet changed people’s habits? The short answer is yes,” said Jeff Cole, director of the UCLA Internet Project. “It has turned industries upside-down (and) called business models into question.”

Not unlike Norman Rockwell’s illustrations of average American life, the UCLA Internet Project is an attempt to capture snapshots of Americana as more people get connected to the Internet. In fact, nearly three-quarters of the country now goes online to some degree, the study showed.

Polling more than 2,000 people from a variety of demographics, researchers at UCLA’s Center for Communication Policy said the digital divide in the U.S. is narrowing and the value of content on the Internet is growing.

About 72 per cent of Americans have some type of access to the Internet, the study found, up from 67 per cent a year ago. Those who go online are also spending more time than ever surfing the Web – about 9.8 hours each week on average. But with more connectivity, computers aren’t compromising social interaction, according to the study.

“Those who go online don’t put their social lives at risk,” Cole said.

The time households spend together hasn’t been negatively effected either, according to those polled. In fact, in some cases families may actually be spending more time together as the use of high-speed connections changes the way people go online. Where modem users dial up to the Internet at home three times per day on average, typically isolating themselves from others, broadband users go online as many as 30 times per day and do so in the company of others, the study showed.

Not all has improved since UCLA first began probing the U.S.’s Internet habits. The study found that the bursting of the Internet bubble has taken a toll on electronic commerce. The number of people polled who said they made a purchase online in the last year declined slightly, to 48.9 per cent, mainly due to the demise of many e-commerce companies.

One clear issue standing in the way of further adoption of e-commerce is consumer fears over privacy and security. Almost all of those polled who made electronic purchases said they have at least some concerns over the privacy of their credit card data. Cybershoppers also said they don’t find the Internet to be a hunting ground for bargains, and if sales tax is added to online purchases they would be less inclined to indulge.

“There was a real drop in enthusiasm for e-commerce. It’s real sobering news,” Cole said.

Even harder hit than shopping was the U.S.’s other favorite pastime: television. People who go online watch television, on average, 4.5 hours per week less than those who don’t log on, and the study showed that the more time people spend online, the less time they spend watching television.

Despite the Internet’s growth, about 28 per cent of the U.S. is still cut off from cyberspace, with most of those respondents saying they don’t have access to a computer. A decreasing number of people – about 21 per cent – say they are not interested in going online at all.

“People who are not online report there is great pressure on them to get online,” Cole said.

The first UCLA Internet Report was released in October 2000 and found that more and more people in the U.S. were turning to the Internet to shop and socialize. UCLA researchers say they will continue to conduct their study, polling the same group of people each year.

“The key thing is that this is a longitudinal study,” Cole said. “We will go back to the same people every year to see changes: Non-users last year are new users this year. Modem users become broadband users.

“The basic importance of this is to show that Internet in American life is only growing,” he said.

More about UCLA’s Internet Report and a complete copy of the study is available online at http://www.ccp.ucla.edu/