Author Archives: Grant Blank

Reading, writing and the Internet: Literacy in the digital age

Written by Grant Blank, William H. Dutton and Nico Buettner

You don’t need to be literate to use the Internet. Children, even infants, can use the Internet and social media at some level. Video news services and voice search are making reading and writing more optional for more Internet users. However, does effective of use of the Internet for pubic and commercial services – all critical in the digital age – still depend on traditional forms of functional literacy? And if so, has the research community’s focus on digital divides in access and multimedia skills deflected attention from even more basic competencies in reading and writing?

Many people might believe that literacy is no longer an issue in developed nations. However, even in the United Kingdom with free and compulsory primary and secondary education, functional literacy cannot always be assumed. According to the OECD, 1 in 6 adults in England possess very poor literacy skills (Kuczera et al. 2016). Illiteracy is highly consequential in modern societies. For example, the National Literacy Trust (2018) notes that boys from the area with the highest illiteracy in the UK, Stockton Town Centre, have an average life expectancy that is 26 years below boys living in Oxford, one of the most literate areas. While scholars have conducted extensive research on the link between illiteracy and a variety of socioeconomic factors, little is still known about how functional literacy relates to online behavior.

Based on the Oxford Internet Survey (OxIS) it is clear that functional literacy is strongly associated with general internet use and seeking out public information via the internet. In addition, compared to the fully literate, the less literate are less likely to agree that technology makes their lives easier and find it more challenging to keep up to date with new technology. This has important consequences for both the government and private companies that increasing move access to important goods and services online.

The British government’s digital strategy for 2021-2024 proposes that an increasing number of government services should only be available online. While this plan may be welcomed by digital natives, it prompts the question of whether this deepens the digital divide – one of the most basic indicators of inequality online. We asked “How confident are you in your ability to read and write?” The bar graph below shows that non-users tend to be less confident. Respondents who are very confident in their reading and writing abilities are much more likely to be Internet users. 74 percent of users are very confident compared to about 48 percent of non-users. Literacy is important when people use the Internet. To link our text to the text of the question, we will refer to respondents who report they are more literate as “Very confident” and those who are less literate as “Less confident”.

Ability to read and write by Internet use

Perhaps the second most critical indicator of inequality online is one’s ability to use the Internet. Of course, we would expect those who are skilled online to be more likely to be functionally literate and the bar graph below shows that this is the case. Almost no one in our sample claims to lack confidence in their ability to read and write. However, these literacies are not identical. For example, a small number of individuals say their ability to use the Internet is good or outstanding have little or no confidence in their ability to read and write. Likewise, a small number who rate their ability to use the Internet as poor say they are very confident in their ability to read and write. So both the digital divide in access and ability to use the Internet are strongly associated with functional literacy. What are the implications for access to services?

This literacy divide in access and skills has repercussions when we look at Internet activities. We looked at two kinds of activity. First is how people find out information about government. The responses show much the same pattern for both local council services and central government services. The bar graph below shows that respondents who are very confident are 22 percentage points more likely to get information about local council services exclusively online compared to the less confident. They are 14 percentage points more likely to access central government services online. Respondents who are less confident in their literacy are more likely to use only offline information sources for both local and central government information. The difference is about 10 percentage points for local council services and two percentage points for central government services. Less confident respondents are more likely to use a combination of online and offline sources by about 10 percentage points. Functional literacy has major effects on whether people use the Internet to gather information from all levels of government.

One reason for these divides could be that the less confident find new technological developments challenging and consider them less beneficial. We asked respondents whether they agreed or disagreed with the statement “I find it difficult to keep up to date with new technology”. We find that the less confident do find new technologies more difficult. The left bar graph below shows that 53 percent of the less confident in their literacy agree compared to 42 percent of the very confident. We also asked for agreement or disagreement with “Technology is making things better for people like me”. The very confident are more likely to agree. The right bar graph below shows that 73 percent of the very literate agree compared to 59% of the less literate. This is a notable difference of 14% percentage points. Confidence in one’s ability to read and write appears to have a strong effect on attitudes toward technology.

Our results suggest that functional literacy could be a key impediment to a significant proportion of the public’s access to the Internet and public services. This raises questions about the government’s plan to make public services and information “digital by default”. This goal mirrors a similar trend among private companies that may require, for example, submission of job applications only online. While we agree that online services are valuable in and of themselves, and potentially cost saving, it is important to consider that increasingly moving such content online may have a disparate impacts on those who are already most vulnerable. In this light, developing effective interventions that help people to achieve full literacy becomes all the more pressing.

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Our data were collected as part of the 2019 wave of the Oxford Internet Survey (OxIS). They are a random sample of individuals living in England, Scotland and Wales. Interviews were conducted in respondents’ homes during January-March. The total sample was 1,818 respondents. The number of Internet users was 1,487. All the results are weighted by age, gender and region to match population proportions.

Sources cited:

Kuczera, M. F., Windisch. S., Hendrickje C. (2016). Building Skills for All: A Review of England. Policy Insights from the Survey of Adult Skills. OECD Skills Studies. Retrieved 23 August 2021 from

National Literacy Trust (2018). Life expectancy shortened by 26 years for children growing up in areas with the most serious literacy problems. Retrieved 21 August 2021 from


Are women more exposed to online hate speech?

Written by Grant Blank, William H. Dutton and Nico Buettner

Driven by controversies like Gamergate (e.g. Hathaway 2014), online hate speech against women has attracted increasing attention. While the prevalence of online hostility toward women is of exceptional importance, most research is anecdotal. Items from the Oxford Internet Survey (OxIS) can be used to take a closer look at gender and hate speech across the entire British population. Contrary to conventional wisdom, evidence suggests that women are not more likely than men to experience cruel or hateful speech online. In addition, there are no meaningful gender differences in experiencing online hate speech among subgroups that could be prone to greater exposure, such as social media users or younger people. Consistent with the prevalence of hate speech, women say they are not more careful than men about what they do and say online.

That women are more likely to be subject to online hate speech than men has been a theme in recent public discourse. Some subgroups of women, like journalists (Posetti et al. 2021), appear to be disproportionately more vulnerable. Other than studies of journalists’ experience, however, much of the evidence is based on anecdotes rather than systematic research. There is some systematic empirical research, but the data are not representative of a population; for example, sociologist Sarah Sobieraj wrote a recent book (2020) based on extensive interviews with 52 women. This is a valuable study of women but it doesn’t contain systematic comparisons to male experiences. These examples raise the question: Is online hate a more prevalent problem for some women, or is it disproportionately a problem for women in general? To answer that question, we look at the OxIS dataset that is a representative sample of the population of Britain. We asked “In the past year have you ever seen cruel or hateful comments or images posted online”.

Over seven out of ten respondents say “no” (71%), they have not seen cruel or hateful comments online. Moreover, the bar chart below shows that there is no difference between men and women; men’s and women’s answers are amazingly similar. The fact that over 70 percent of both men and women reported that they had not seen hate speech suggests that the problem, while a very real experience for an important segment of the population, is not part of the experience of most users. And in general, women do not report more abuse than men.

We also looked at two groups where we thought that hate speech might be more common: people on social media platforms and younger respondents. The bar chart below compares men and women by the number of social media platforms they use. The first notable result is that there is a relationship between being active on social media and witnessing hate speech: The more social media platforms a respondent is active on, the more likely they are to have seen hate speech. This is understandable since user-generated content is the most likely source of offensive speech.

The bar chart also shows the differences between men and women. For non-users of social media and for users of between one and four platforms, the difference between men and women is very small, less than two percentage points. For users with five or more profiles on social media platforms, women are about seven percentage points less likely to have seen hate speech or images. This difference is probably due to ordinary sampling error due to the relatively small number of respondents in that cell. We also examined whether gender differences in exposure to hate speech vary for users of specific social media platforms, such as Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Snapchat, Instagram, or dating websites. Again, we find no large gender differences in online hate speech exposure. Presence on social media seems unrelated to whether women are more exposed to hate speech than men.

The next bar chart shows the relationship between age, gender and hate speech. The overall pattern is that younger people are more likely to have seen hate speech than older adults. When we look at differences between men and women, they are small, usually two percentage points or less. An exception is the age 45-54 category where women report being 11 percentage points less likely than men to have seen online hate speech. It is hard to imagine why that age group alone would be different, so this is again most likely sampling error. Overall, we find little difference between men and women across all ages.

If women are more likely to experience hate speech online, this could make them more cautious and self-conscious when they are online. We asked respondents about the extent to which they agreed or disagreed with the statement “I am very careful what I do or say online”. Most respondents agree or agree strongly, 77 percent of men and 74 percent of women. If anything, there is a slight tendency for women to be less cautious than men but three percentage points is within the margin of error of the survey. In general, men and women are equally careful about what they do or say online.

Much more analysis could be done on this topic, but these findings suggest that some emerging impressions need to be more systematically challenged. These results suggest that measures tackling hateful online content need to find solutions that do not exclusively speak to or single out the experiences of women, but look at a wider variety of factors, including the age and activity of Internet users.

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Our data were collected as part of the 2019 wave of the Oxford Internet Survey (OxIS). They are a random sample of individuals living in England, Scotland and Wales. Interviews were conducted in respondents’ homes during January-March. The total sample was 1,818 respondents. The data used in this post include only the 1,487 Internet users. All the results are weighted by age, gender and region to match population proportions.


Sources cited

Hathaway, J. (2014, October 10) What is Gamergate and why? An explainer for non-Geeks. Gawker. Retrieved 6 August 2021 from The literature on Gamergate is extensive. The Wikipedia article has 274 citations!

Posetti, J., Shabbir, N., Maynard, D., Bontcheva, K., Aboulez, N. (2021) The chilling: global trends in online violence against women journalists. UNESCO. Retrieved 6 August 2021 from

Sobieraj, S. (2020) Credible threats: attacks against women online and the future of democracy. Oxford: Oxford University Press.


Britons are more mindful about their online privacy than you might think

Written by Grant Blank, William H. Dutton and Nico Buettner

The advent of social media has left many commentators worried about whether Internet users expose too much personal information online. However, the Oxford Internet Survey (OxIS) conducted in 2019 by the Oxford Internet Institute at the University of Oxford suggests that privacy is more complicated than it is usually understood. The survey results show that public attitudes are not simple. The general public seems well aware of privacy threats, yet a significant portion of the population says that they are comfortable revealing personal information about themselves online. Let’s look at the data.

Much of public discourse about the social consequences of the internet has claimed that many Internet users are careless in revealing personal information online. While such claims may be rooted in examples of incautious Internet behavior, such behavior is far from universal. Most people agree that the use of computers and the Internet threatens their personal privacy (55%). Only a quarter of the British public does not see a threat (the remainder neither agree nor disagree). Part of their concern may be how much personal information is accessible online. Almost half of Britons (46%) agree that “People can find personal information about me online”, while about a third disagree (34%), the remaining 20% neither agree nor disagree. Over half of the population agrees that “It is difficult to delete personal information once it is online” (57%).

The public’s concern about privacy may have had an effect on their online behavior, encouraging presentation of self with caution and care. Awareness that online activity may be public behavior is widespread with three-quarters of adults agreeing that “I am very careful about what I do or say online” (75%). Only about one person in ten disagrees (10%). Online caution has been stable since 2013, when almost the same proportion of adults agreed with the same question (78%).

Despite these privacy concerns a substantial portion of the population feels comfortable providing personal information online. Almost half of the population says they are fairly or very comfortable providing their postal address online (47%). Despite a long-standing British concern with people’s faces appearing in public media, more than four in ten report being comfortable with online pictures where their face is visible (43%). This also means that majorities are not comfortable with the appearance of either their address or their face online. It is striking that public attitudes toward privacy seem to vary widely. Some people clearly want more privacy and feel threatened. Others do not feel the threat and are comfortable providing personal details online.

In these responses we see clear differences of opinion about online privacy. However, these differences might not reflect naiveté about the use of the Internet and social media. Instead they may reflect genuine disagreement about the nature of privacy threats. There are two issues here. First, are the questions still relevant? The questions we asked in OxIS are standard questions used by social scientists for decades to measure privacy concerns. For example, we asked if people are comfortable putting their photograph online and we find that 57% of Internet users say they are not comfortable. But what does this response mean when 72% of Internet users in Britain use Facebook? There is also a common sense issue: during the pandemic almost everyone with access to the Internet shopped online, so why do we ask if people are comfortable putting their address online? We ask if people can find “my personal information online” but 82% of British Internet users have a social media account, and many use social media in order to be found and also to find friends. The technical changes in the Internet and social media create a dramatically different environment than the computing milieu of the 1970s, when many of the questions about privacy began to be asked. Let’s get with the times!

Second, does the policy response reflect the actual facts of online privacy? Examples like photos on Facebook, or personal information on social media illustrate how complicated privacy has become. Privacy protection has to deal with contradictions. These contradictions are not widely recognized. Political action to protect privacy clashes with political interest in encouraging people go online to enjoy the benefits of the Internet, not to mention encouraging safety in a pandemic. It may be time to look hard at ourselves as academics and also policy-makers for not applying more common sense and thought to how we define, think about and measure public attitudes toward online privacy.

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Our data were collected as part of the 2019 wave of the Oxford Internet Survey (OxIS). They are a random sample of individuals living in England, Scotland and Wales. Interviews were conducted in respondents’ homes during January-March. The total sample was 1,818 respondents. The data used in this post include only the 1,487 Internet users. All the results are weighted by age, gender and region to match population proportions.

OxIS 2019: The Rise of Mobile Internet Use in Britain

In the short time from 2013 until 2019 the use of mobile has been the most dramatic change in how individuals in Britain use the Internet. This reflects a global trend in the adoption of mobile phones and mobile Internet use. However, the uniquely UK dynamics and consequences of this transformation are starkly illuminated in our OxIS research. The findings demonstrate how embedded the Internet has become in Britain and also how mobile Internet has become not simply a desirable innovation, but an essential aspect of everyday life and work.

Most generally, the value of mobile is evident not only in its adoption, but also in the swift rise in the number of ways people are using mobile Internet – primarily through smartphones – to perform many of the functions previously done almost exclusively on desktop computers and laptops. In some respects the speed of the shift to mobile has been analogous to the shift from black and white to colour TV. While black and white TV diffused slowly, the introduction of colour took off far more rapidly. The prior familiarity of many Internet users with mobile phones and with the Internet facilitated the move to a mobile Internet device – making Internet use simpler and more flexible as the two technologies converged. This helps to explain how this shift could occur so rapidly but it also raises more questions about who is left out, and what difference it makes.

We looked at three modes by which users access the Internet: computer-only access, mobile-only access and those who use both a computer and a mobile (computer+mobile access). Most users are computer+mobile users (63%) but 15 percent are mobile-only and five percent are computer-only users. Computer+mobile users are the most active Internet users by every measure we looked at. We looked at the demographic characteristics of these three modes of access. Computer+mobile users tend to be young, while computer-only users are predominately retired. Mobile-only users also tend to be younger, but the most common category is 41-51 years old. Computer+mobile use is most common in the highest income categories, while computer-only and mobile-only users earn less.

Simple zero-order relationships exist between many other demographic categories and modes of use, but age and income are the strongest relationships. This raises the question of which characteristics are most important. To answer this question we ran multinomial logistic regressions using mode of access as the dependent variable. These confirmed that age and income are the strongest effects. We also found an interaction between age and income for each of the three modes.

  • The probability of being a computer+mobile user decreases with age but low-income people have a much smaller probability than high-income users.
  • The probability of being a computer-only user increases with age, and the increase is very sharp after age 50. Young people have essentially zero probability of being computer-only users regardless of income. The probability of low-income people over age 80 being computer-only users is over 50 percent.
  • The probability of being a mobile-only user decreases with age; the relationship is especially strong for low-income people.

The point is that the relationship between age and income depends on what mode people use to access the Internet. The probability of being either a computer+mobile or a mobile-only user declines with age (but with different shapes); but for computer-only users the probability increases.

This continues a pattern that will be familiar to anyone acquainted with the digital divide. Those with multiple devices, including mobile devices, are the most embedded and advantaged in Britain as it increasingly becomes a digital society, but some are left behind. Non-users have been left on the wrong side of the digital divide, but a small proportion of the public have been left behind by being overly dependent on mobile, the mobile-onlies, while others left behind by missing the opportunities offered through mobile, the computer-onlies. These ‘onlies’ do less online compared to their counterparts who have multiple devices, some of which are mobile. The ‘onlies’ also tend to have lower incomes and less education; in general, lower status. Subsequent reports will look more closely at the ways in which the Internet has become embedded in work and everyday life, and help you to judge whether being a non-user, mobile-only user or computer-only user is an advantage or disadvantage in today’s world.

To read this report click on:
The Rise of Mobile Internet Use report download


The Rise of Mobile Internet Use report download

OxIS 2019: Digital divides in Britain are narrowing but deepening

The existence of a ‘digital divide’ has been one of the key social issues of the Internet since its early diffusion at the turn of the twenty-first century. Over time, as access to the Internet has become increasingly central to everyday life, those without access to broadband infrastructures, digital devices, and Internet skills have been socially, politically and economically disadvantaged. Therefore, critical questions remain about levels of access and skills that shape who uses and does not use the Internet, why, and what difference this makes. This report summarizes recent broad changes in the digital divide in Britain. The digital divide has narrowed but about 15 percent of the British population remains offline. At the same time, those who are online have markedly intensified their use. They use more devices and do more online. The nuances of these trends are fleshed out using 23 graphics and accompanying commentary. In addition to fundamental demographic factors like age, education, income and literacy, we present data on the relationships between divides and variables such as gender, employment marital status, ethnicity, disability, urban/rural residence, social grade and children in the household.

The authors thank the OII; the UK Department for Digital, Culture, Media & Sport; Google Inc.; and BT, for their support of this survey.

To read this report, click on:
Digital Divides Report download

OxIS 2013 top-line findings: Internet use continues to grow; big increases in low-income households

Released on 1 October by the Oxford Internet Institute, University of Oxford, the Oxford Internet Surveys (OxIS) 2013 Report: “Cultures of the Internet: The Internet in Britain 2013” presents data on British access, use and attitudes to the Internet since 2003. Topline findings are listed below:

Internet use continues to grow; big increases in low-income households

  • Internet use continues to grow across all levels of income. The Internet is now used by 78% of the British population, up from 73% in 2011.

  • The biggest increases in Internet use are seen in low-income households (58% of households earning less than £12,000 / year use the Internet, up from 43% in 2011).

  • The challenge of getting the last fifth of the population is growing every year: only 29% of ex-users and 9% of non-users are planning on getting Internet access in the next year; this proportion has been declining steadily since 2005. This persistent core of non-users will present a problem for initiatives such as Government ‘digital by default’ services

People are becoming more skillful; mobile and device use is exploding, but social media have plateaued

  • Devices. Use of Internet-enabled devices has increased sharply: 37% of households now have access to a tablet (26% in 2011) and 27% to an ereader (7% in 2011).

  • Mobility. Accessing the Internet on the move has also increased sharply: 57% of Internet users access the Internet while on the move in 2013 (40% in 2011; 20% in 2009).

  • Mobiles. Mobile phones are increasingly used for a range of Internet-related activities: email (54% of mobile users in 2013), Internet browsing (52%), using social network sites (43%), playing games (43%) and listening to music (43%).

  • Social media. However, social media use has plateaued at 61% of Internet users (60% in 2011).

  • Government services. 65% of users have used online government services in 2013, up from 57% in 2011.

  • Skills. People’s self-reported ability continues to rise: 74% of Internet users in 2013 rate themselves as having “good or excellent” skills (up from 60% in 2003). This is dependent on lifestage; 92% of students rate themselves this way, compared with 77% of employed, and only 49% of retired people.

Students are concerned about privacy; non-users want more government regulation of the Internet, Internet users generally don’t

The Internet is essential to media habits, and ‘more trustworthy’ than newspapers; people are meeting each other online, but many lack the necessary social skills

  • Information. 35% of Internet users say the Internet is “essential” for information, compared to 15% who say the same for television, 6% for newspapers and 6% for radio.

  • Entertainment. 20% of Internet users say the Internet is “essential” for entertainment, compared with 21% who say the same for television, and only 6% for radio.

  • Trust. Internet users trust the Internet more than newspapers or the government, but about the same as television news.

  • Social skills. 80% of students are “fairly to very confident” about their online social skills, compared with 58% of employed and only 29% of retired people.

  • Meeting people. 40% of Internet users have met at least one person online in the last year they did not know before.

Divides are narrowing, but digital inequality persists by age, education, income

  • There has been progress on narrowing digital divides, with a rise in Internet access and use for lower income groups, people with no formal educational qualifications, retired people, and people with disabilities. However, education, age, income still exert a powerful influence on Internet access and use.

  • Education. The digital divide has almost disappeared for those with any formal educational qualifications, however, those with no qualifications are still left out, with only 40% of that group using the Internet (compared with 84% with basic qualifications, 92% with further education, and 95% with higher).

  • Children. 5% of households with children between the ages of 10 and 17 do not have Internet access. Such inequality of home access is a recognised source of educational disadvantage, for which Internet use at school cannot fully compensate.

  • Income. People with higher household incomes are more likely to use the Internet. 99% of people with household incomes exceeding £40,000 are Internet users, compared with 58% of those with household incomes of less than £12,500. However, Internet use in that lowest income group has jumped to 58% in 2013 from 43% in 2011.

  • Age. Young people are much more likely to use the Internet than older people. 100% of people aged 14-17 are Internet users, compared with 85% of people aged between 45-54, and only 39% of people aged over 65.

  • Disability. People with disabilities are about half as likely to use the Internet as people without disabilities (51% vs 84% are Internet users).

  • Gender. There is no longer a gender gap in access to the Internet in Britain.

Internet users are very positive about the impact of technology; non users are generally doubtful and fearful

  • 79% of Internet users (and 44% of non-users) agree that “technology makes things better”. Students are very positive; 94% agree that technology “makes things better” and disagree that technologies “fail when you need them most” (10%) or fear that they “might break technologies” (5%).

  • Retired people are less positive: only 60% agree that technology “makes things better”, while 42% disagree that technologies “fail when you need them most” and 43% fear they “might break technologies”.

  • Fear. Non-users are more likely to express fears about the Internet or technology; making the digital divide very difficult to bridge: 59% of non-users (only 14% of users) fear they “might break” new technologies.

  • Lack of interest. 82% of non-users say they most important reason they don’t use the Internet is that they are not interested.

For quotes, please contact: Jennifer Darnley,, +44 (0)1865 287228.

More than half of the British people who use the Internet do it ‘without enthusiasm’

[Press release – University of Oxford, 1 October 2013]

The number of people in Britain who are using the internet has risen, reaching 78% of the population aged 14 years and over as compared with 59% in 2003. Yet according to the latest survey of British internet use and attitudes, conducted by the University’s Oxford Internet Institute, more than half of those who go online do it without enthusiasm. Nearly one in six (14%) users felt the internet was taking over their lives and invading their privacy. An additional one-third (37%) of British users had no strong feelings either for or against the internet and were described as ‘moderate’ in their view. Some 17% said it made them more efficient;12% said they were happy going online; and 19% had mixed views, feeling efficient and happier but also frustrated, says the latest Oxford Internet Survey report.

The report, published today by the University’s Oxford Internet Institute (OII), is based on face-to-face interviews earlier this year with a representative sample of 2,000 internet users in Britain. One noteworthy trend highlighted in the report is a levelling off in the popularity of social networking sites with two-thirds (61%) of internet users surveyed saying they used them – an increase of only one percentage point from 2011 after explosive growth between 2007 and 2011. While most users of social network sites are under 35, there has been a substantial rise in the proportion of users aged 45-54 years old using such sites – from 10% in 2007 to 51% in 2013. People who are retired are much less likely to use them than employed people or students. Privacy has been a frequent concern on these sites, with 90% of student users saying they checked their settings, contrary to the commonly expressed view that young people no longer care about privacy.

The digital divide in Britain continues to narrow, suggests the report, with the number of people who have never gone online falling from 23% in 2011 to 18% in 2013. Trends in household use parallel individual use, with 81% of households in Britain now online as compared with 74% in 2011. The rise in the number of individuals having access to the internet is due to households acquiring it for the first time, rather than more people going online in households that already have access, suggests the research. However, television sets remain the focal point of households in Britain. Virtually all households have a TV set in 2013 whereas one-quarter (24%) of them still do not have a computer.

The survey suggests that internet use increased modestly across all age groups. The gender divide is now almost non-existent as compared with 2003 when 64% of men and 55% of women said they used the internet. Among lower income groups, during the last two years internet use has increased from 43% to 58% for households earning less than £12,500 a year, and from 65% to 88% for households paid £12,500-£20,000 a year. People in higher status jobs are more likely to use the internet, with 83% of managers and professionals using it for work as compared with just 23% of blue collar workers, says the report. Only those with no educational qualifications at all tend to be left out – only 40% of this group use the internet. Nearly half (45%) of the retired people surveyed said they used the internet, which compares with 36% in 2011. Meanwhile, 51% of people with a disability are now using the internet, a rise of 11 percentage points since 2011.

Nearly all those surveyed (98%) said parents should bear the main responsibility for their children’s experience of the internet, much the same as two years ago. However, there was a rise in the number of people who believe the government is responsible for how children experience the internet. Three-quarters of those surveyed agreed that the government should play a role in protecting children who go online as compared with 66% in 2011 and just 56% in 2007.

Lead researcher Professor William Dutton said: ‘In the past, academics studying the internet tended to focus on the digital divide, examining why certain people did not go online: whether it was to do with choice or lack of access. This study shows that a small percentage of the population (18%) still have not used the internet and it suggests that most non-users have made the choice that it is not for them. Our surveys started ten years ago, and in that time we have been able to track just how mainstream the internet has become – it is an integral part of most people’s lives in Britain today. This latest study examines in detail the variety of ways in which it is being used and the wide range of attitudes held about it.’

Researcher Dr Grant Blank from the OII said: ‘This year’s survey shows that while most of us in Britain are now using the internet, half do it without enthusiasm. These are people who use the internet because they have to, not because they want to. They don’t go online to enjoy themselves and they don’t feel more productive online. They also perceive problems, particularly with regard to privacy, frustration and wasted time. The apparent weak growth in the proportion of people using social network sites is a remarkable change from prior years. We can speculate that this is because of media coverage about privacy issues on social media sites. Or, maybe it shows that we are approaching a natural limit in the number of people interested in such sites.’

Proxy users in the UK: An overview

In general, OxIS distinguishes between Internet users and non-users based on personal use of the Internet. Internet non-users are individuals who say they do not use the Internet personally, by themselves. However, many of these individuals in fact have some indirect access to the Internet, via so-called proxy Internet users. Proxy Internet users are individuals who (for example) go online to send an e-mail, or find information on someone else’s behalf. OxIS differentiates between two levels of proxy Internet access. First, we ask non-users whether they have a proxy user available, and then, whether they have activated a potential proxy Internet user in the past year. Below, I review the characteristics of Internet non-users who engage in indirect Internet use.

Since 2005 there has not been much change in the proportions of non-users who have a proxy user available to them (‘proxy use available’ line in the graph below), as well as in the proportions of non-users who have engaged in proxy Internet use (‘proxy use activated’ line). About 70% of non-users report having access to proxy Internet use, whereas only about 20% of non-users have actually activated a proxy user. The stability in proxy use availability and activation is interesting, since from 2005 to 2013, the proportion of non-users declined from 32% to 18% of the British population. Thus, we would expect that a larger proportion of current Internet non-users would have a potential proxy user available to them.


Use of the Internet by proxy has been increasing slightly.

The graphs below do not show a clear picture of the role of individuals’ demographic characteristics in activation of proxy Internet use. Gender does not seem to be important, as about 30% of both men and women report indirect Internet use. Similarly, employment status does not have a clear relationship with proxy Internet use. Interestingly, in 2013 unemployed non-users were most likely to activate proxy Internet use. By contrast, some level of education and high income increase the likelihood of proxy use activation.

Age is an important factor of proxy Internet use activation. While in 2009, middle-aged non-users were somewhat more likely to engage in proxy Internet use, in 2013 the relationship clearly reversed. Over half of non-users aged 25 to 44 activated a proxy user, whereas this proportion drops to 20-30% for non-users aged 45 years or more. There are much bigger differences between 2009 and 2013 in younger age groups than in older age groups. This instability is related to a fewer number of non-users in younger age groups.


Young people are the most likely to be proxy Internet users in 2013.

The graphs below do not show a clear picture of the role of individuals’ demographic characteristics in activation of proxy Internet use. Gender does not seem to be important, as about 30% of both men and women report indirect Internet use. Similarly, employment status does not have a clear relationship with proxy Internet use. Interestingly, in 2013 unemployed non-users were most likely to activate proxy Internet use. By contrast, some level of education and high income increase the likelihood of proxy use activation.



People with higher education and higher income are more likely to be proxy Internet users.

There is also no difference between urban and rural non-users; a bit less than 30% of both groups report indirect use of the Internet. However, the graph below provides evidence that non-users from a higher social class are more likely to have indirect access to the internet; non-users who have high socio-economic status and work in manager and professional occupations are more likely to report proxy use activation. Interestingly, presence of children in the household does not seem to be important for explaining proxy internet use activation, although the last graph shows that children often act as proxy internet users.


Most commonly, proxy Internet access is gained via family members and friends. This pattern has not changed since 2009 when we first asked non-users about specific groups of people that help them with indirect Internet use. Children and grandchildren are the most common sources of proxy Internet use, with over 60% of non-users reporting their help. This is followed by friends, partners or spouses, and siblings. Internet non-users tend not to seek proxy Internet users in libraries or Internet cafes.


Finally, it is also important to understand the characteristics of Internet users who report helping others to use the Internet; these individuals may also be more likely to act as proxy Internet users for people who do not go online themselves.

In 2013, 41% of Internet users reported helping someone else use the Internet in the past year. Those Internet users are more likely to be young; over 50% of users aged 14 to 34 years have helped others use the Internet. Moreover, they are more likely to be students, to have higher education, and high income levels.


The ways in which Internet non-users engage in indirect internet use is an under-researched area of digital divide studies. This overview suggests that socio-economic characteristics are not only important determinants of who are internet users and non-users, but that they also determine indirect access to online services. Finally, the gap between non-users who report they have a proxy user available (about 70%) and those who actually use the internet via a proxy (about 20%) is huge. Further research is needed to explore the reasons why only one in five internet non-users engage in indirect internet use.

Should government regulate the Internet more? Most Internet users say no; most non-users say yes

Internet regulation has become an increasingly controversial topic as governments have sought to deal with issues arising from the growing centrality of the Internet and the perceived risks to children and other important segments of the public. While users are subject to existing laws and regulations, such as laws against consumer fraud and product misrepresentation, many feel that laws written for a pre-Internet world fit poorly in the online environment, and are difficult to enforce across national boundaries.

Part of the debate is over where the Internet needs new regulatory approaches. Between 2011 and 2013 there appears to have been no change in support for more government regulation of the Internet amongst British Internet users (43% in 2011 vs 44% in 2013), but a sharp rise amongst non- and ex-users (67% in 2011 vs 79% in 2013). Such a rise in support is evident across several demographic groups, with only students showing greater resistance towards government intervention (19% supported more government regulation in 2013, compared to 26% in 2011).

Non- and ex-users, with less personal experience online, are the most susceptible to calls for greater regulation of the Internet, as are retired people, who have steadily backed more government regulation of the Internet.


Social network site use plateaus at 61% of Internet users

Social network sites transformed the online experience for many people. However, while these sites have experienced years of explosive growth, growth in the proportion of users seems to have levelled off in the last two years, with the major growth in the use of social network sites occurring from 2005 to 2011. It is no longer reasonable to suggest those not on social network sites are simply unaware of them; without a disruptive innovation it is unlikely that we will see significant growth by the next survey. What we are seeing is a plateau of the diffusion curve as social network site use reached about two-thirds of the Internet population in the UK.


Social network sites have become part of popular culture. Everyone knows what they are and what they can be used for, so people who are not using them are likely to be doing so by choice. This raises all sorts of questions. Why the sudden stability at about two-thirds of Internet users? Why are the attractions not appealing to those who are not using them? Have users been put off by journalistic coverage of privacy concerns on social media sites? Were social network sites something of a fad that has now peaked, or have we reached some natural limit of the number of people interested in social media?