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Last Updated: Wednesday, 25 July 2007, 09:23 GMT 10:23 UK
Digital divide grows with web use
By Steve Schifferes
Business reporter, BBC News

Teenagers, BBC/Corbis
Young people are using the internet in very different ways
The digital divide in Britain is still pronounced despite growing intensity of internet use, a survey has suggested.

The Oxford Internet Survey (OxIS) found that with two-thirds of Britons online, the poor, the old and the less educated are still losing out.

Meanwhile, the way young people use the internet is changing rapidly, with mobile access and social networking growing in popularity.

But few people create their own content or use the net for social activism.

Mind the gap

The Oxford Internet Survey is one of the most comprehensive looks at the pattern of internet use in Britain, which it has tracked since 2003.

The survey found 67% of the population were current internet users in 2007, up from 59% in 2003.

A woman reading "How to be a silver surfer"
"Silver surfers" need to be encouraged more to try the web

One of its most striking findings is that there is still a huge gap between age groups.

Internet use falls off sharply after the age of 55 and among people who have retired. Only 31% of retired people use the internet, compared with 81% of those in work and 97% of students, a pattern which has persisted since 2003.

There is also a persistent but smaller gender gap, with 5% fewer women going online.

And low income and lack of education are still big barriers to internet use.

Just over half of those who lack further education are online, as opposed to 90% with a university education.

Among those with household incomes below 12,500 only 39% use the internet.

Professor Bill Dutton, director of the survey, told the BBC that the digital divide was now as much about choice as lack of access.

He said that the government needed to tackle attitudes among older people as well as providing more resources for poorer households to go online.

And he says that as the internet is an "experiential technology", older people will only "get" the internet when they actually use it.

Growing intensity of use

In contrast, those who are online are using the internet more intensely than ever.

Ian Walker, BBC News reporter, tests a mobile phone
Internet access on mobile phones has been growing fast

There has been a big increase in the use of broadband, with 85% using high-speed connections, compared with just 19% four years ago - and the report predicts that dial-up could virtually disappear in the next few years.

Mobile internet use has also seen a sharp increase, with 29% having wi-fi wireless access, compared with just 1% four years ago, and 21% accessing the internet on a mobile phone or PDA, up from 5% four years ago.

Households which access the internet are far more likely to use other types of digital equipment, such as digital cameras, MP3 players, and mobile phones.

Retired people, who use the internet less than any other group, are also less likely to use other digital devices.

Social networking

One of the fastest growing uses of the internet is for social networking.

OxIS finds that 42% of students have created a profile on a social networking site such as Facebook or MySpace, but just 15% of the employed and 2% of retired people.

One in four internet users has met a friend online that they did not know before using the internet - and half of those have met them in person.

Perhaps surprisingly, it is older people and the retired who are most likely to meet online friends in person - and men rather than women who do more social networking.

And e-mail and internet messaging are still by far the most dominant means of online communication.

No Web 2.0 - yet

The number of people who upload content of their own, rather than read that of others, is still small.

Only 16% of internet users have tried to set up a website for personal use - and the proportion is unchanged since the last survey in 2005.

Even within that group, a substantial proportion update such sites very infrequently, according to Ellen Helsper, senior researcher on the Oxford survey.

The only online creative activity that has shown an increase has been people posting pictures on the internet through the use of such sites as Flickr.

Students are twice as likely as others to create content online.

And only one in 10 internet users have taken part in political activities online, such as signing an online petition - with the older age groups being the most likely to engage in civic activism, both online and offline.

Information, not entertainment

The way people use the web has changed dramatically over the past few years.

There has been an enormous increase in the use of search engines such as Google to find information - with 57% mainly using search engines, compared with just 19% in 2005.

For internet users, the web is now a more trusted source of information than television - and the amount of television they watch has declined.

Web users would turn first to the internet to find out a wide range of information, from planning a trip to finding a local school to comparing prices of products they want to buy.

There has also been a big increase in looking for information about health online.

Online banking and bill-paying, and checking investments online, have all increased in popularity, as has confidence in buying products online.

One in three users read an online newspaper or news service - and for half it is different from the one they read offline.

But the use of the internet for entertainment - such as downloading music or videos - has stayed steady since the last survey in 2005.

According to Bill Dutton, the internet continues to be a "transformative" technology, changing what we know, how we know it, and who we know in profound ways.

The Oxford internet survey interviewed 2,305 people aged 14 years and older in 175 enumeration districts in England, Wales and Scotland. Of these, 1,578 were internet users. Previous surveys, asking similar questions, were carried out in 2003 and 2005.

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