Poorest still lag far behind despite rising internet use
New data shows a growing proportion of households in Great Britain using the internet, but differences in internet use by income remain stark.
Data released last week by the ONS shows that in 2014, 86% of adults (43 million) in Great Britain had used the internet in the last 3 months, up from 59% in 2006 (when directly comparable records began). Meanwhile, around 58% of adults have used a device such as mobile phone or smart phone to access the mobile Internet, away from home or work, up from 24% in 2010. Behind these headline statistics however, there is an ongoing digital divide between those from lower and higher income groups.
The Oxford Internet Survey (OxIS) report published by the Oxford Internet Institute in 2013 provides a breakdown of internet use by household income. The survey shows that higher income groups are much more likely to be using the internet than lower income groups. It is worth noting, however, that the survey examines a slightly different population (those aged 14 and over as opposed to the ONS sample of persons aged 16 an over) and employs a somewhat different definition of ‘use of the internet’ to that used by the ONS.
Drawing on the OxIS data, the graph below shows the proportion of households using the internet in 2005 and 2013 by annual income. Those with the highest incomes are the most likely to use the internet – close to 100%, while the poorest are the least likely at 58%. For all income groups internet use has increased since 2005. There has been a big increase in internet use among the poorest (those with an income of less than £12,500 per year) - up by 29 percentage points. Amongst those with an income of £12,500 to £20,000 per year, internet use rose by 23 percentage points from 65% to 88%. Meanwhile, amongst the higher income categories the increases are not as dramatic as internet use amongst those with household incomes of £20,000 and above nears100%.
While this rise in use is a welcome development, there is still some way to go in addressing the digital divide, particularly for the lowest income group. In 2005, household internet use increased considerably with each income group until the level of £30,000. By 2013, internet use was over 85% across the all income categories except the very poorest group which still lagged considerably behind. Amongst this group internet use was 35 percentage points below that of the middle income group in 2013 – the largest gap across all income categories. Indeed, internet use amongst those in the lowest income category in 2013 remains below that of the middle income group in 2005. Finally, as household incomes here are not equivalised, it is likely that the lowest income group contains a lot of single people. As many single person households are comprised of pensioners, there may very well be an age dimension to this internet use story.
While there has been a rise in internet use, the poorest households remain much more likely to lack what is today considered a basic need and the gap does not seem to be narrowing. In practice, this means missing out on the many benefits that accompany internet use such as higher pupil attainment rates, claiming benefits online, an increased likelihood of securing a job and opportunities to save money on household bills through ‘switching’ or paying online. Missing out on such opportunities is a huge disadvantage for anyone today, but particularly so for those who on low incomes who are already disadvantaged.
 ‘Internet use’ according to the OxIS survey is measured as use of the internet on whatever device at home, work, school, college or elsewhere at any point now in or in the past. The recent ONS release, on the other hand breaks this down by internet use in the last 3 months.