Industries in Depth

So many Americans are now online that social media use has plateaued

Silhouettes of mobile users are seen next to logos of social media apps Signal, Whatsapp and Telegram projected on a screen in this picture illustration taken March 28, 2018.  REUTERS/Dado Ruvic/Illustration

Image: REUTERS/Dado Ruvic/Illustration

Paul Hitlin
Senior Reasearcher, Pew Research centre
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The use of digital technology has had a long stretch of rapid growth in the United States, but the share of Americans who go online, use social media or own key devices has remained stable the past two years, according to a new analysis of Pew Research Center data.

The shares of U.S. adults who say they use the internet, use social media, own a smartphone or own a tablet computer are all nearly identical to the shares who said so in 2016. The share who say they have broadband internet service at home currently stands at 65% – nearly identical to the 67% who said this in a survey conducted in summer 2015. And when it comes to desktop or laptop ownership, there has actually been a small dip in the overall numbers over the last two years – from 78% in 2016 to 73% today.

A contributing factor behind this slowing growth is that parts of the population have reached near-saturation levels of adoption of some technologies. Put simply, in some instances there just aren’t many non-users left. For example, nine-in-ten or more adults younger than 50 say they go online or own a smartphone. And a similar share of those in higher-income households have laptops or desktops.

Still, there are noteworthy numbers of non-users of various technologies. Surveys conducted by the Center over the years highlight how these non-adopters of various technologies often face substantial and multifaceted barriers.

In some cases, Americans who would like to take advantage of new technologies are simply unable to do so because of financial restrictions. In a 2015 survey, 43% of non-broadband adopters cited cost (either the cost of a computer, or the cost of the broadband subscription itself) as the primary reason they did not have broadband service at home. For other Americans, technology adoption may differ by where they live. A survey conducted earlier this year found that roughly six-in-ten Americans living in rural areas say that access to high speed internet is a problem in their local community. That compares with 43% of those in urban areas and 36% living in suburbs.

In other instances, non-users say they do not see the value of learning how to use new technologies. In a 2013 survey, the Center found that 34% of non-internet users did not go online because they had no interest in doing so, or did not think the internet was relevant to their lives.

In addition, certain groups of Americans – most notably, older adults – face their own unique challenges when it comes to using and adopting new technologies. In a 2015 survey, 34% of internet users ages 65 and older said they had little to no confidence in their ability to use electronic devices to perform online tasks, while 48% of older adults said the statement, “When I get a new electronic device, I usually need someone else to set it up or show me how to use it” describes them very well. And a substantial share of seniors reports they have chronic health condition, disability or other type of physical limitation that might prevent them from fully utilizing a variety of devices.

While many long-standing measures of technology adoption have steadied the past two years, the ways that people get connected and use digital platforms are constantly shifting and evolving. For instance, Pew Research Center surveys have shown that the number of people who are “smartphone-only” internet users – meaning they own a smartphone but do not have traditional home broadband service – has grown from 12% in 2016 to 20% this year.

And although the shares of Americans who use certain social media platforms have changed little in recent years, that has not been true with every site. The percent of adults using Instagram, for example, has grown from 28% in 2016 to 35% this year. And looking beyond the adult population, the social media environment of today’s teenagers looks remarkably different than it did just a few years prior.

Meanwhile, new connected devices continue to emerge. Consumer surveys show that the use of smart TVs and wearable devices has grown in recent years. Nearly half of Americans (46%) use digital voice assistants on smartphones or devices like Amazon Echo, according to a 2017 Pew Research Center survey. A host of items collectively called “the Internet of Things” – ranging from household thermostats and security systems to “smart city” transportation systems – are also coming on the market.

Ultimately, the method for tracking certain adoption metrics may need to change. A canvassing of experts by the Center suggested that it might make sense in the near future to stop asking people if they “use the internet” because it will be so ubiquitous. Those experts predicted that the internet would become “like electricity” – almost invisible to users, yet more deeply embedded in their lives.

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