4 Ways Americans Are Becoming More Connected

Source: Thinkstock

Source: Thinkstock

As mobile devices and the proliferation of wireless networks make it easier to stay connected anywhere and everywhere, a report by the U.S. Department of Commerce called “Exploring the Digital Nation: Embracing the Mobile Internet” quantifies exactly how quickly Americans’ adoption of mobile phones and the Internet is growing. As the report’s foreword explains:

“The use of mobile Internet applications skyrocketed between July 2011 and October 2012, rising by double-digit percentage points across generations. Mobile communications are now nearly ubiquitous — almost 9 out of 10 Americans ages 25 and older reported that they use mobile phones. The data suggest that the use of mobile devices for communications and information access has expanded exponentially and is now deeply ingrained in the American way of life.”

Read on to find out four ways that Americans are now more connected than ever before, and how the Internet is becoming more accessible to every part of the population — even groups that have traditionally been on the disadvantaged side of the digital divide that has separated the demographic groups who do and don’t have access to mobile technology and the Internet.

1. More Americans are using mobile phones, which are becoming more common among historically disadvantaged groups

Researchers found that the adoption of mobile phones is increasing more quickly among “historically lagging groups” than among groups where mobile phone use was already common. For example, 96% of adults ages 25 and older with annual family incomes of $100,000 or greater used mobile phones in 2012 — constituting a small increase from 95% in 2011.

But at the same time, adults 25 and older with family incomes below $25,000 became 4 percentage points more likely to use mobile phones, and mobile phone adoption increased from 73% to 77%. Overall, 88% of Americans age 25 and older used mobile phones by October 2012, up 2 percentage points from July 2011, indicating that the adoption gap is slowly narrowing.

Mobile phone usage increased 4 percentage points each among individuals with family incomes below $25,000 (rising from 73% to 77%), and adoption among people who identified themselves as having a disability grew at twice the rate of adoption among their non-disabled counterparts. Mobile phone use rose from 68% in 2011 to 72% in 2012 among those with disabilities.

The adoption gap narrowed for individuals with lower educational attainment, with 72% of Americans without a high school diploma using a mobile phone in 2012, up from 68% in 2011. Eighty-three percent of those who finished high school but did not continue their education used a mobile phone in 2012, up from 79%. As each of these groups increased adoption by 4 percentage points, mobile phone use among college graduates increased by just one percentage point, from 94% to 95%.

Mobile phone adoption also increased significantly among rural Americans, who have traditionally experienced less robust networks and infrastructure than their more urban counterparts. In 2012, 85% of those dwelling in rural areas used a mobile phone, up from the 80% reported just 15 months earlier.

Researchers note that racial disparities in mobile phone adoption “appeared to nearly vanish” in 2012, with adoption among African Americans and Hispanics reaching 87% each, compared to the 88% adoption among whites, leaving the difference between them “no longer statistically significant.”

2. Growing numbers of Americans are using their phones for more than simple voice communications

More Americans used their mobile phones to complete simple tasks, like checking emails or just browsing the web. Forty-three percent said that they checked or sent email, and 42% browsed the web. The proportion who used their phone for email and web browsing gained 9 percentage points since July 2011. In fifteen months, the proportion of users who downloaded apps increased by ten percentage points, from 22% to 32%.

More Americans are taking photos and videos with their phones, with 54% of mobile phone users at least 25 years old reporting that they take photos or videos with their phones. Additionally, the proportion of mobile phone users who used maps and other GPS-based apps grew by 10 percentage points to reach 34% in 2012, and activities like social networking, listening to music, and playing mobile games also gained significantly in popularity.

But the report observed significant gaps in user behavior based on educational attainment, family income, and population density. Among mobile phone users aged 25 and older, 57% of college graduates checked or sent email with a mobile phone, compared to 19% of users without a high school diploma.

Similarly, 54% of users with college degrees browsed the web from their phones, but only 21% of those without a high school diploma did.  Researchers also observed a 36 percentage point gap between the 63% of users with family income of $100,000 or more who used a phone for a email and the 27% of users with family income below $25,000 who did.

Similar divides were observed based on population density, with 45% of urban mobile phone users checking or sending email with their phone while only 29% of rural mobile phone users checked or sent emails with their phone. Rural users were also 13 percentage points less likely to browse the Web on their phones, 12 percentage points less likely to download apps, and 8 percentage points less likely to use social networks. While traditional disparities in the adoption of technology are shrinking, a new socioeconomic divide in usage patterns is emerging.

3. More Americans have access to the Internet at home

More households have broadband at home. Seventy-two percent of U.S. households had broadband access in 2012, up from 69%. Home computer use grew from 76% to 79%. Counting the 2% of households who rely on dial-up service, approximately 75% of households use the Internet at home.

Additionally, home broadband use by those 65 and older increased 15 percentage points from 2007 to 2012, rising from 32% to 47%. In 2000, 61% of 25- to 44-year-old householders had a computer at home, while only 24% of those 65 and older had one at home. But by 2012, 85% of 25- to 44-year-olds and 64% of those 65 and older had a computer at home.

Similarly, in 2001, 54% of unemployed householders owned a computer, and by October 2012, 75% of households facing unemployment had a computer, which is universally agreed to be a critical tool for the job searching process. In 2012, 83% of households headed by an employed person used the Internet at home, compared to 70% of those with unemployed household heads. In 2007, only 71% of employed householders and 56% of unemployed householders used the Internet at home, so the study shows a 13 and 15 percentage point increase over five years.

In the households that did not use broadband at home, several primary reasons were common. Many cited a lack of need or interest in going online at home, or said that the expense deterred them from using broadband at home. Additionally, some households reported that the lack or inadequacy of a computer as the reason they didn’t use the Internet at home.

4. The proportion of Americans who use the Internet anywhere has increased

The proportion of the population who accesses the Internet anywhere has gone up. Internet users 16 years and older grew in number from 151 million in October 2007 to 187 million in October 2012, which the report notes constitutes an increase of over 18% after adjusting for population growth. Libraries were important providers of Internet access and were used by 11% of households nationally. Additionally, 20% of unemployed householders and 18% of households with school-aged children accessed the Internet at a library.

Forty-two percent of Americans used the Internet outside of the home in 2012, and 15 to 24-year-olds were the most likely to go online outside of the home. Employed people were more likely to use the Internet outside of the home than their unemployed counterparts, and those with higher family incomes were more likely than those with lower incomes to go online at a location other than the home.

Among those who used the Internet outside of the home, 38% identified the workplace as a source of Internet access. However, just 13% of households making less than $25,000 reported someone going online at work, while 70% of households making $100,000 or above reported the same. Similarly, 25% of householders with a high school diploma reported using the Internet at work, while 59% of those with a college degree or higher did so. The researchers also observed significant gender disparity, with 40% of male householders reported someone going online at work and 36% of females reporting the same.

Since 2000, Internet use anywhere — defined as Internet use at home or away from home — grew 31 percentage points to 75% of all Americans in 2012. Eighty-seven percent of 15- to 24-year-olds and 85% of 25- to 44-year-olds used the Internet anywhere, and Internet use among those 65 and older gained 37 percentage points between 2000 and 2012.

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