NATIONAL SCIENCE FOUNDATION
Directorate for Social, Behavioral
and Economic Sciences
NSF 00-314 March 31, 2000
by Maria C. Papadakis
Complex Picture of Computer Use in the Home Emerges
Since 1994, there has been rapid growth in home PC ownership. Internet access has expanded even faster.
Research indicates that socioeconomic and demographic factors continue to be the variables most correlated with home IT adoption.
In the future, more complex studies should produce a richer picture of the many factors that interact to determine IT use.
What do we know about the diffusion and use of information technologies (IT) in the home? Twenty years after the advent of the personal computer (PC), the research on IT in the home produces a complex picture of household use.
A new National Science Foundation (NSF) study, The Application and Implications of Information Technologies in the Home: Where Are the Data and What Do They Say? <http://www.nsf.gov/statistics/itroadmaps/> reviews key data resources and research on the impacts and consequences of IT in the home. The study identifies eight core data sets and reviews more than 30 major studies related to IT in the home <http://www.nsf.gov/statistics/itroadmaps/>.
Some key study findings follow.
PC and Internet Use in the Home Has Spread Rapidly, Especially Among the Affluent and Well Educated
Patterns of diffusion and adoption clearly suggest that IT is still very much a resource acquired by more affluent and well educated Americans. Although PCs have been diffusing rapidly in recent years, rates of adoption are still lower in poor and minority households compared to affluent and white homes. The research on both PC and Internet adoption indicates that socioeconomic factors (such as income, level of education, and marital status) and demographic factors (such as age, sex, and race/ethnicity) continue to be the variables most correlated with home IT adoption.
The Digital Divide Is Widening
From 1994-98, the gap in PC ownership between white and African American and Hispanic households widened, as did the gap between rich and poor. Although ownership of home computers and Internet access increased in all income and racial/ethnic categories during these 4 years, the disparity in ownership has widened. For example, in 1998, 46.6 percent of white Americans owned a home computer compared to 23.2 percent of African Americans, a gap that increased by nearly 7-percentage-points over 1994.
These ethnic differences cannot be accounted for solely by affluence: within every income category, African Americans lag substantially behind white Americans in their adoption of home computers and linking to the Internet, although the gap is not as large at higher income levels. The NTIA reports that “The role of race or ethnic origin is highlighted when looking at similarly situated families. A White, two-parent household earning less than $35,000 is nearly three times as likely to have Internet access as a comparable Black household and nearly four times as likely to have Internet access as Hispanic households in the same income category” (NTIA, Falling Through The Net: Defining the Digital Divide, July 1999, p. 6). Relatedly, geographic location has an additional impact on both household PC ownership and Internet access. Homes in rural areas are less likely to own PCs or be connected to the Internet even when income is held constant in statistical analyses.
Certain groups thus appear to show consistently lower levels of home IT access, particularly households that are low income; African-American, Hispanic, or Native American; less educated and single-female-headed; or located in the south, rural areas, or central cities.
Children and Male Teenagers Continue to Be the Heaviest Users of Home PCs
Overall, the early research findings generally suggested that children and male teenagers tended to use home PCs more often and for longer periods than adults. Strong differences by sex appeared in some early adopter studies. Women and girls overall appeared to use the computer less often and less intensively than their male counterparts, and were much less likely to be heavy users of the technology. Children tended to use the computer for games, learning, and writing in roughly balanced proportionsno one application dominated use, although game playing was the most common reason children gave for using the computer. Recent research on Internet use reinforces some of the impressions generated by the early computing studies: children and male teenagers still tend to be the heaviest users of IT.
Internet Use Has Moved From Work to Home
Specific informational content derived from the World Wide Web is relatively unique to each individual’s interests and needs. Of the roughly 10,000 unique addresses visited during one study of families’ on-line activities, 55 percent were accessed by only one person and less than 2 percent were visited by 20 percent or more of the individuals in the sample; these tended to be search engines and Web portals. Usage is nonetheless patterned by broad categories. In terms of general information searches, the American Internet User Survey, <http://www.cyberdialogue.com/>, reveals that health and medicine is the most popular Internet subject. Thirty-six percent of all users—and 47 percent of female users—report exploring this subject. Other major areas of interest include entertainment, music, parenting/children, and life-styles subjects. The NTIA also reports distinctive patterns of home Internet use <http://www.ntia.doc.gov/ntiahome/digitaldivide/>. In general, individuals with higher income and higher education levels are far more likely to use the Internet for work-related activity, while minorities and unemployed individuals tend to use the Internet for employment searches and taking educational courses.
Home IT Use Has Both Beneficial and Harmful Impacts
Teleworking and the Home
IT and Healthcare
Video Games and Children
Caveats and Gaps in Knowledge
This issue brief was prepared by:
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 As used here, “information technology” is defined as consisting of home computers and other devices for accessing information sources, primarily the Internet. “In the home” refers to the use and implications of IT in or by households, but not by a home office.
 Peter C. Clemente, State of the Net: The New Frontier. NY: McGraw-Hill, 1998.
 Robert Kraut et al., “Communication and Information: Alternative Uses of the Internet in Households.” In CHI ‘98; Proceedings of the 1998 Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems, Association for Computing Machinery Special Interest Group on Computer-Human Interaction, Los Angeles: Association for Computing Machinery, 1998, pp. 368-75.
 Robert Kraut et al., “The HomeNet Field Trial of Residential Internet Services.” Communications of the ACM, 1996, 39 (12), pp. 55-63.