Income and Internet Usage

When I initially started to do research on Americans’ social media habits, I operated under the assumption that almost all Americans had access to the internet. As such, I believed that most individuals could easily access Facebook or Twitter from their computer; if someone didn’t use social media it was due to personal preference, not lack of access.

And it is true that a large majority of Americans live in homes with a computer that’s connected to the internet. As of 2012, 74.8% of households have an Internet connection at home (Census Bureau). Of the 25.2% of American households that don’t have internet access, 7.3% report not having an internet connection because it is too expensive (Census Bureau). That’s a small minority of the population, but the United States is a large country with over 117 million households; that 7.3% represents over 8.5 million families that can’t afford the internet.

I had to take into account a new variable when examining America’s social media use: class. And indeed, regular internet usage is positively correlated with a person’s income. 73% of people making less than $30,000 a year report using the internet compared to 99% of people making over $75,000 a year (Madden).

I expected social media use to likewise be positively correlated with income. But surprisingly, people in lower income brackets are actually more likely to use social media than wealthier individuals. 72% of people making under $30,000 a year use social media. Only 65% of people in higher income brackets report using social networking sites. In addition, lower income groups are more likely to use both Facebook and Twitter (Madden).

The increasing use of cell phones as an internet browsing device might explain poorer people’s propensity to use social media. 43% of people making less than $30,000 a year do most of their internet browsing on their cellphone as compared to 21% of people making over $75,000 a year. Cellphones lower barriers to entry by allowing people to cheaply access the internet even when they don’t have access to a computer connected to the internet at home.

I was surprised that having a lower income—despite preventing people from having a computer with internet access—doesn’t prohibit people from using social media. Perhaps social media truly is a democratizing force that allows a greater portion of the population to participate in our country’s political discourse.

Given the increasing importance of social media in geopolitics, it would also be interesting to explore the relationship between income and internet usage in other countries. Are richer households more likely to have access to the internet in other countries? Are poor people in Hong Kong or Tehran able to access social networking sites? The answers to these questions may help us understand the demographic makeup of protest movements around the world.

“Computer & Internet Trends in America.” Measuring America. United States Census Bureau, 3 Feb. 2014. Web. 19 Oct. 2014. <http://www.census.gov/hhes/computer/files/2012/Computer_Use_Infographic_FINAL.pdf>.

Madden, Mary. “Technology Use by Different Income Groups.” Pew Research Internet Project. Pew Research, 29 May 2013. Web. 19 Oct. 2014. <http://www.pewinternet.org/2013/05/29/technology-use-by-different-income-groups/>.