Free internet access, the digital divide, and health information.
The Internet has emerged as a valuable tool for health information. Half of the U.S. population lacked Internet access in 2001, creating concerns about those without access. Starting in 1999, a survey firm randomly invited individuals to join their research panel in return for free Internet access. This provides a unique setting to study the ways that people who had not previously obtained Internet access use the Internet when it becomes available to them.
In 2001-2002, we surveyed 12,878 individuals 21 years of age and older on the research panel regarding use of the Internet for health; 8935 (69%) responded. We analyzed respondents who had no prior Internet access, and then compared this group to those who had prior Internet access.
Among those newly provided free Internet access, 24% had used the Internet for health information in the past year, and users reported notable benefits, such as improved knowledge and self-care abilities. Not surprisingly, the no-prior-Internet group reported lower rates of using the Internet (24%) than the group that had obtained Internet access prior to joining the research panel (40%), but the 2 groups reported similar perceptions of the Internet and self-reported effects.
Those who obtained Internet access for the first time by joining the panel used the Internet for health and appeared to benefit from it. Access helps explain the digital divide, although most people given free access do not use the Internet for health information.
Wagner, TH; Bundorf, MK; Singer, SJ; Baker, LC
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