To those of us who have made the Internet an integral part of our daily lives, it's easy to forget that not everyone is aboard the online train. In fact, according to recent research, a very large block of the U.S. population is still resisting the connected society.
About 80 million American adults -- 42 percent of the adult population -- say they do not use the Internet. About a quarter of all Americans have never been online at all. And -- in an interesting twist -- many of today's nonusers were previously online. They have given up the habit and gone cold turkey.
The Pew Internet & American Life Project, a nonprofit research organization that watches Internet trends, culled some new insights in a recently released report. They found 20 percent of non-Internet users live in wired homes and yet remain offline. Of the current group of nonusers, 17 percent are "online dropouts."
The research reveals a flattening of the overall growth of the Internet population over the last year and a half. Internet penetration rates have hovered between 57 and 61 percent since October 2001, rather than continuing the steady climb of the technology boom years.
The Pew researchers speculate that the lack of growth can be blamed on the struggling economy or "it may be that we have reached a point where the adoption curve has peaked and the market is no longer working" to attract new users.
The study suggests that many Internet users are having a love-hate affair with the technology. More than a quarter of current subscribers report that at one time or another in their online lives, they dropped offline for an extended period.
"The Internet population shows much greater churn than most realize-a lot of people are moving in and out of the online world pretty regularly," said Amanda Lenhart, the Pew researcher who authored the new report "The Ever-Shifting Internet Population: A new look at Internet use and the digital divide."
A surprisingly large number of people, she said, "don't want to be connected even though they have tasted what online life is like or live with the Internet literally in the next room."
So why do people make a choice not to go online? "The reasons nonusers stay away from the Internet are varied and complex," said Lee Rainie, director of the Pew project. "Many lack the resources to go online. Others don't live in a social world where Internet use matters, and still others have no notion that the communication and information functions of the Internet can help them improve their lives."
Some 56 percent of the dropouts told the Pew researchers that they don't think they will ever go online. "These people are generally the poorer, older segment of the not-online population, and are more likely to be white, female, retired and living in rural areas," the report said.
Among those who say they will never go online, 71 percent are over age 50, and 41 percent are over 65. The relatively small number of those aged 18 to 29 who do not now use the Internet believe that they will go online eventually.
The nonusers say they feel no need or desire to access the Internet, or that going online is not a good use of their time. Some say the cost of computers and Internet access is a major problem for them. Others blame the technology. Some 27 percent say they believe the Internet is too complicated and hard to understand.
The study highlights the fact that computers are still too complex and difficult for many people to use. "Some were embarrassed over lack of computer skills. Others feared breaking or damaging computers. Some were afraid of appearing stupid or foolish in front of family, friends, co-workers or employees," the report said.
A little more than 25 percent said the complexity of the Internet is a major reason why they don't use it, and another 19 percent said it was a minor reason. Two in five -- 40 percent -- agreed with the statement "the Internet is confusing and hard to use."
Though some progress has been made, it's clear from the research that the computer and consumer electronics industries have a long way to go in making personal computers more accessible and user-friendly for non-technical people.
One focus group interviewee in the Pew study how she had purchased a computer at the urging of her neighbor, who was a government IT professional. When she got it home she said she was so intimidated by it that she left it untouched for more than a year, referring to it as "The Monster in the Basement."
To download a complete copy of the report, go to http://www.pewinternet.org/index.asp
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Frank Beacham is an independent writer based in New York.