Internet usage: what are the facts?

25 October 2012

"We are holding the [PCC] elections in November when holding elections is much more expensive than at other times of the year. Doing so will also drive down turnout, and the elections are unpopular with the public in any case. Instead of a free post or a Government-backed booklet with information about the candidates to be sent to each voter, individuals can only go on to the Government website. Some 71% of over-75s have never used the internet, and neither have almost 20% of people in Wales.

Diana Johnson, Commons debate, October 24, 2012. 

With experts warning that the Police and Crime Commissioner elections due next month could see low voter turnout, Labour MP Diana Johnson warned that the internet could not be solely relied upon to inform voters.

Specifically, she made the point about the digital divide in England: 71% of over 75s have never used the internet and neither have 20% of people in Wales. 

So where does this come from, and what does it tell us?

The ONS quarterly figures on internet usage revealed that 16% of adults in the UK have never used the internet. Curiously, we find the greatest participation rate in Eastern Scotland, where only 8.4% of people say they have never been online, while the lowest rate is in Northern Ireland, were the number goes up to 22.3% 

Overall, it is perhaps unsurprising to find that 98% of people aged 16 to 24 - the so-called digital natives - are active online. 

Diana Johnson was also correct about the low participation rates in Wales: only 80.7% of people have surfed the web west of the Severn; a scant 78.6% if you only consider Western Wales and the Valleys.

The point Ms Johnson made was fairly reasonable: 15.5 percent of people in the UK aged over 16 - a close if not perfect approximation for those eligible to vote - are not internet users.

So how does the UK compare internationally in terms of digital literacy?

According to Internet World Stats in December 2011 there were 52,731,209 internet users in the UK (representing 84.1% of the entire population).

That figure is staggering if you consider that in Afghanistan, a mere 4% of the population has accessed the web. 

If we look closer to home, we'll find that a quarter of Europeans have never been online, according to Eurostat.

Within Europe, the UK is only topped by Luxemburg and a few nordic countries: Denmark, Sweden, Norway and the Netherlands. We rank in the top 10 amongst OECD countries in terms of internet access. 

Though Diana Johnson makes a valid point, it is fair to point out that the information relating to the PCC elections has also been made available by phone, a method of commication that, according to one Ofcom report, 92% of the adult population has access to.

Flickr image courtesy of marilynnm63

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