Study: Canadians' use of the Internet and digital technologies before and during COVID-19 pandemic
As the COVID-19 pandemic moved many activities online, did Canadians' Internet proficiency increase? A new study entitled "Canadians' use of the Internet and digital technologies before and during the COVID-19 pandemic," released today in Economic and Social Reports, documents the changing distribution of Canadians across internet user groups prior to and during the pandemic. Data taken from answers to 29 questions available on both the 2018 and 2020 Canadian Internet Use Surveys were used to categorize Canadians into one of five Internet user groups, ranging from Non-users to Advanced users. A shift of the population into more adept user groups is observed, particularly among Canadians in older age groups and with lower levels of educational attainment.
Fewer Canadians are on the 'have not' side of the digital divide
From 2018 to 2020, the shares of Canadians identified as either Non-users or Basic users of the internet and digital technologies declined by almost 5 percentage points, from 23.8% to 18.9%. This represented a shift of almost 1.4 million Canadians from the 'have-not' to the 'have' side of the digital divide. Over the same period, the share of Canadians classified as Advanced users increased by more than 4 percentage points, reaching 36.7% in 2020. Among all the user groups, the shares of Canadians classified as Intermediate Users increased by 1.3 percentage points and the share classified as Proficient Users declined by 0.9 percentage points over the period. Almost 23% of Canadians were in the Intermediate user group, and 22% were in the Proficient user group in 2020.
Many online activities became more prevalent, but Basic Users did not keep pace
Among Internet users, some online and digital activities were more prevalent in 2020 than in 2018. For example, the share of Basic users who changed their location privacy settings on a digital device increased by about 13 percentage points, from 6% in 2018 to 19% in 2020. Similarly, the shares of Intermediate and Proficient users who changed their location privacy settings on a digital device increased by 22 and 26 percentage points respectively, suggesting a widespread change in practices among these groups. Among Advanced users, 88% reported that they changed their location privacy settings in 2020, up 4 percentage points from 2018. The smaller increase among Advanced users reflected the greater prevalence of this activity, already evident in 2018 and more limited scope for further increase. Increasing shares of Internet users also changed personal information privacy settings and blocked messages on their digital devices, indicating that more Canadians were taking steps to increase their online security and privacy.
Among the four groups who used the internet and digital technologies, many online activities were more prevalent in 2020 than in 2018. However, the increase observed among Intermediate users was often larger than that observed among Basic users, suggesting that the latter group was not keeping up with the pace of change of their counterparts in the intermediate group. For example, 12% of Basic users and 36% of Intermediate users used online voice and video calls in 2018, a difference of 24 percentage points. In 2020, 23% of Basic users and 55% of Intermediate users used online voice and video calls, a difference of 32 percentage points and widening the gap by 8 percentage points. Similarly, the gap widened by 6 percentage points or more on activities such as changing privacy location settings, subscribing to a streaming service, buying goods online and booking appointments online.
Fewer seniors are Non-users or Basic users of the Internet and digital technologies
Between 2018 and 2020, the share of Canadians aged 65 years or older who were Non-users of the Internet declined by 6 percentage points and the share who were Basic Users declined by almost 8 percentage points. Combined, the share of seniors who were either Non-users or Basic users declined from 62% to 48%, with this 14 percentage-point decline representing a shift of almost 869,000 seniors from the 'have not' to the 'have' side of the digital divide. The shares of seniors classified as Intermediate and Advanced users both increased by over 5 percentage points. The share of Canadians aged 50 to 64 years classified as either Non-users or Basic users declined by 8 percentage points over the period.
An upward shift across Internet user groups was also observed among Canadians aged 35 to 49 years, and to a far smaller degree, among Canadians aged 15 to 34 years. The classification of Internet user groups in terms of reported activities makes the approach sensitive to the change in share of individuals reporting an activity, but insensitive to changes in the time spent on it. The shares of younger Canadians undertaking various activities did not change much between 2018 and 2020. Whether they spent more time on those activities cannot be determined from the data used here.
Turning to individuals with different levels of educational attainment, the shares of Canadians with high school or less who were either Non-users or Basic users of the Internet and digital technologies declined by 11 percentage points from 2018 to 2020, while the share who were Intermediate users increased by over 5 percentage points. An upward shift across Internet user groups was also observed among individuals with non-university post-secondary credentials or a university degree.
While smaller shares of seniors and individuals with high school diplomas or less were in the Non-user and Basic user groups in 2020 than 2018. It is important to note that such individuals still accounted for the largest shares of Non-users and Basic users in 2020. In 2020, seniors accounted for 64% of Non-users and 49% of Basic users, but for 17% of Proficient users and 7% of Advanced users. Likewise, individuals with high school diplomas or less accounted for almost two-thirds of Non-users and almost one-half of Basic users in 2020.
The next iteration of the Canadian Internet Use Survey will be conducted in late 2022 and/or early 2023. This will allow the shift of Canadians across the Internet user groups above to be tracked over an additional two years and allow user groups themselves to be updated and refined to reflect Canadians' continued adaptations in the digital environment.
The article "Canadians' use of the Internet and digital technologies before and during the COVID-19 pandemic" is now available in the April 2022 issue of Economic and Social Reports, Vol. 2, no. 4 ( 36280001).
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