What really jumps off the pages of the new Pew Internet & American Life Project’s “Cell Internet Use 2012” is not that the well-to-do use wireless devices to access the Internet more than the poor do, nor that the well-educated tend to use cellphones to gain access to news, entertainment and social networks. It is that elderly Americans barely use the wireless Internet at all. Maybe this puts them at a disadvantage in a period when so many people have untethered themselves from PCs, but probably it does not.
Pew’s research shows that 55% of people who own cellphones use them to access the Internet or e-mail. That is up from 31% in 2009. Each set of data was gathered in April. While 80% of people between 25 and 34 use cellphones for these activities — up from 43% three years ago — people over 65 use their cellphones for the same purposes only 16% of the time, up from a miniscule 7% in 2009.
The two primary reasons that people use cellphones for Internet access, Pew reports, are convenience and the fact that they nearly always have their cellphones with them. Neither is true in great numbers among those older than 65. Notably, Pew does not pass judgment on the trend, perhaps because there is no judgment to pass. If Pew found any evidence that cellphone use for Internet surfing was superior to PC use, the research firm’s staff kept that to themselves.
The assumption that constant access via the wireless Internet provides people with some advantage over those who do not have this access is based on the idea that it is critical to have minute-by-minute engagement with information, entertainment and social networks. But entertainment is an occasional activity, and one that is not time sensitive. The use of social networks has limited benefits, particularly for people who can call and text one another. That leaves access to news and information. It is arrogant to believe that people who do not follow news and sports on their phones lose out, when they can get the same information from PCs, although there may be a time lag. The foundation of this assumption is that most news is best consumed when it happens, and not a few hours later.
Old people have stayed away from cellphone use as the key portal to the Internet. That is because they do not need wireless access to remain on par with everyone else.
Douglas A. McIntyre