Socio-demographic factors influencing use of the Internet

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Differences in access to and use of the Internet have been identified among Canadians depending on age, gender, income, education, and location (McKeown and Noce 2007, Sciadas 2002). Moreover, studies of the digital divide have identified relationships between Internet access and use and many of these socio-demographic factors in many countries (Sciadas 2003, 2005, OECD 2001).

The analysis which follows looks more closely at three particular socio-demographic groups with distinct patterns of Internet use: recent immigrants, Canadians living in rural areas, and older Canadians.

Internet use among new Canadians
Internet use by rural Canadians
Internet use by older Canadians

Internet use among new Canadians

Canadian research has identified distinct patterns of Internet use by immigrants to Canada, especially recent immigrants. In 2003, the Statistics Canada and the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development International Adult Literacy and Skills Survey showed that immigrants in Canada and several other countries have high levels of home computer use (Veenhof 2006b). The same survey also found a link between language most often spoken in the home and time spent on computers: 37.3% of those who most often spoke a language other than English or French at home spent 30 or more hours per month on their home computer. This compared with only 28.6% of those Canadians reporting English and 26.4% of those reporting French.

Recent immigrants are also more likely than Canadian-born individuals and other immigrants to use the Internet to communicate with their family and friends. The 2003 General Social Survey on social engagement found that 56.0% of Canadians aged 25 to 54 who immigrated to Canada between 1990-2003 used the Internet in the previous month to communicate with friends, compared with 48.1% of Canadian-born individuals. Similarly, 55.9% of recent immigrants used the Internet to communicate with family, compared with 42.6% of persons born in Canada (Schellenberg 2004; see also Table 3 from an earlier section of the current study). An earlier study based on data from Statistics Canada's 2000 GSS also found that foreign-born Internet users were more likely to use email on a daily basis to communicate with relatives and friends than those born in Canada (Dryburgh 2001). There are likely a number of factors related to recent immigrants' elevated use of the Internet for this purpose. For instance, the Internet represents a cost-effective way for immigrants to communicate with family abroad. Also, recent immigrants have, on average, relatively high levels of education—another factor associated with elevated use of the Internet (Schellenberg 2004).1

The East York interviews conducted by NetLab provide a case study illustrating this phenomenon (Kayahara et al. 2005). 39% of the interviewees were immigrants and almost half of them had immigrated to Canada in the last 5 years. For nearly all of the recent immigrants, using the Internet to connect with friends and family back home was a top priority.

The Internet has been more useful for maintaining ties than for making new ties in Canada. This is not specific to immigrants, for the East York study revealed that less than 1% of all close personal ties were formed on the Internet alone (Wellman and Hogan et al. 2006). Immigrants found the Internet particularly useful for gathering information about Toronto, and choosing to migrate to it instead of other cities. However, the study found that once they arrived, like most Canadians, immigrants still made new ties through old means.

Recent data from Statistics Canada's 2007 Canadian Internet Use Survey (CIUS) detail some of the other differences in how immigrants (and, in particular, recent immigrants) use the Internet compared with Canadian-born persons. Table 1 compares the online activities of Canadian-born home Internet users with two groups of immigrants who also used the Internet from home: those who immigrated to Canada prior to 1997, and those who immigrated in 1997 or later.2 Recent immigrants and Canadian-born persons were equally likely to use the Internet for a number of communication-related online activities, but recent immigrants were more likely to make telephone calls online and to use instant messaging.

Compared with Canadian-born individuals, recent immigrants also showed elevated use of certain types of cultural information online. For example, three-quarters (75.0%) viewed news or sports information online, compared with 62.1% of Canadian-born home Internet users. Recent immigrants were also active in using the Internet to download music, movies or television programs and listen to online radio.

Table 1  Average time spent per day in social contact with other persons, Internet users and non-users, Canada, 2005

Table 1 
Selected activities of home Internet users, by immigration status, Canada, 2007

These findings emphasize that the Internet can be an essential resource for keeping in contact with family and friends abroad, and may also offer ethnic and foreign language cultural content which may be difficult for recent immigrants to find in their immediate physical community.

Internet use by rural Canadians

The rural digital divide—the gap in Internet access and use between those living in urban centres and those living in rural areas—has been a subject of research in many countries including Canada (Standing Senate Committee on Agriculture and Forestry 2008, McKeown and Noce 2007, Veenhof, Neogi and van Tol 2003, National Broadband Task Force 2001). Significantly fewer Canadians living in rural areas use the Internet than urban Canadians. Statistics Canada's 2007 CIUS found that 75.6% of urban Canadians used the Internet for personal use (from any location) compared to 65.2% of rural Canadians. Rural Canadians were also less likely to use the Internet from home (59.5%), compared to Canadians living in urban areas (71.4%). A recent study concluded that a rural digital divide persists even when controlling for other factors, such as age, gender, income and education (McKeown and Noce 2007).

Yet, the Internet affords opportunities for rural Canadians to reduce the barriers of distance. For example, it enhances their ability to access goods, services and information over the Internet that are not readily available in their immediate communities, to participate in distance education when access to certain schools or programs becomes otherwise difficult (or prohibitive) due to location, and to use telemedicine to talk with medical specialists or send test results to distant hospitals for interpretation. Like immigrants, rural Canadians value the Internet's ability to communicate with friends and relatives who live far away, usually in Canadian cities.3

Using data from the 2007 CIUS, Table 2 reveals that urban home Internet users were slightly more likely to perform a number of online activities, most notably using the Internet for financial information and various forms of communication and leisure. Broadband Internet access facilitates a number of high-bandwidth applications, such as downloading music, listening to Internet radio and watching television online, activities which are significantly more popular among urban Canadians than persons living in rural areas. Urban users were also more likely to obtain travel information, view news and sports, research community events and go online for educational or training purposes compared with their rural counterparts. However, rural users were more likely than urban users to play games online with others. Differences in use of the Internet for instant messaging, communicating with the Canadian government, obtaining weather reports or road conditions, and general browsing for fun or leisure were not statistically significant. The overall pattern however is that urban Internet users generally participate in a greater variety of online activities compared with rural residents of Canada.

Table 2  Selected activities of home Internet users, by location of residence, Canada, 2007

Table 2
Selected activities of home Internet users, by location of residence, Canada, 2007

Although the Internet represents a significant resource for some rural users, the results above confirm that there remains not only a divide in access to the Internet between urban and rural users, but also a gap in use of the Internet. This 'use divide' emphasizes that merely assessing the availability of Internet infrastructure is not enough to adequately measure the impacts the Internet may have on the ability of all citizens to participate in a digital society (Middleton and Ellison 2008, Montagnier 2007, OECD 2004).

According to a recent NetLab study, the rural residents of Chapleau, Ontario, report that the availability of broadband is a key to their diversified use of the Internet (Behrens, Glavin and Wellman 2007, Collins and Wellman 2008). Such availability remains an issue in some rural and remote parts of Canada, according to the latest CIUS figures. While the vast majority (91.4%) of urban home Internet users had a high speed connection in 2007, just under three-quarters (72.5%) of rural users reported using a high speed connection from home. In addition, more than one-half of rural residents using a slower service reported that a high speed connection was not available in their area (Statistics Canada 2008). Given relationships that may exist between broadband access and the amount of time users spend online as well as the types of activities they engage in (Montagnier 2007), the lack of availability of broadband connections in some rural and remote areas is likely to continue to play a role in explaining some of the differences in the way the Internet is used in these areas. Indeed, Canadians living in rural and remote areas report that the range of online activities they participate in, and the efficiency with which they perform these activities, are constrained by the lack of high-speed service (Standing Senate Committee on Agriculture and Forestry 2008, Cobb 2007).

Internet use by older Canadians

Age is another factor associated with levels of access to the Internet in Canada and many parts of the world (OECD 2001, 2004, Sciadas 2002, 2003, United States Department of Commerce 2004). CIUS data reveal that 60.8% of Canadians aged 55 to 64 accessed the Internet for personal reasons in 2007, and a substantially smaller proportion (28.8%) of seniors aged 65 and above did so. By contrast, the rates of Internet use (from any location) for personal reasons in 2007 for other age groups were 93.1% for individuals aged 16 to 34 and 79.8% for individuals aged 35 to 54.

Senior Canadians also use the Internet differently than younger Canadians (Veenhof 2006c, Silver 2001). In 2007, young adult users were appreciably more likely to use the Internet for instant messaging, contributing online content, viewing news or sports, downloading music and television or movies and listening to online radio (Table 3). Unlike many other activities, email use is equally prevalent among the three oldest age categories shown, perhaps reflecting the tendency of older users to use email to communicate with family (this is consistent with results from earlier surveys: see for example Table 3 from an earlier section of this study). In fact, other studies have shown that online seniors who email family members are likely to say they communicate more often with family members now and a majority feel that the Internet has improved their connections with family (Thayer and Ray 2006, Howard, Rainie and Jones 2001). CIUS data also show that seniors were more likely than middle-aged Canadians to go online to play games with others. Nonetheless, online gaming was most popular among young Canadians aged 16 to 34.

Table 3  Selected activities of home Internet users1, by age group, Canada, 2007

Table 3
Selected activities of home Internet users, by age group, Canada, 2007

Seniors were also active when it came to searching for health information (52.4%) online. A number of activities grew in popularity among seniors in 2007 compared with 2005, including instant messaging and viewing news or sports information online. That said, these activities remained more popular among young persons. While older Canadians generally participated in fewer online activities, they were quite active users of email and online games when compared with other age groups.


  1. Future work could study differences in use of the Internet among immigrants and Canadian-born persons, while also controlling for characteristics such as education, age and income.

  2. For the purposes of this study, immigrants were divided into quartiles or four equal groups, based on year of immigration. Immigrants who arrived in Canada in 1997 or later represent one-quarter of all immigrants in the 2007 CIUS. These persons are defined as 'recent immigrants.' This definition is based on the distribution of the data, and may differ from definitions used in other research.

  3. For example, a recent NetLab study in rural Chapleau (Ontario) cited a respondent who reported that he looks at his infant grandson in another city "all the time" through a webcam rigged over his crib (Collins and Wellman 2008).