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Digital Literacy in 2015:
America’s Complicated Relationship with the Internet

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What is digital literacy?

“Digital literacy is the ability to find, evaluate, utilize, share and create content using information technologies and the Internet.”

Source: Cornell University


From Jan. 6–10, 2015, an online survey was conducted among 2,009 randomly selected American adults, age 18+, who are also Springboard America members. Springboard America is a subsidiary of the North American research firm Vision Critical and rewards its members for taking surveys. The margin of error—which measures sampling variability—is +/- 2.2%, 19 times out of 20. The results have been statistically weighted according to the most current data on age, gender, region, education and ethnicity from the U.S. Census Bureau’s “American Community Survey” to ensure the sample is representative of the entire adult population of America. Discrepancies in or between totals are due to rounding.

Computers, mobile devices and the Internet have altered many aspects of our lives—the way we work; the way we consume information; and the way we communicate. But how do Americans feel about this? Are they confident in their abilities to embrace these changes? Or, do constant advances in technology leave them feeling obsolete and out of touch? Rasmussen College commissioned a study of 2,009 U.S. adults to find out.

The Internet:
Can't live with it, can't live without it

It seems America’s attitude toward the Internet is conflicted: More than half of respondents (59%) admitted they find the Internet overwhelming; yet, 68% of survey takers said they “can’t live without it.”

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Topping the list of concerns are safety and security:

71% said they worry about computer viruses.

68% said they’re worried about someone stealing their personal information online. Yet, one in four respondents (26%) admitted they use the same password on multiple sites, and therefore aren’t doing as much as they can to protect themselves.

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Millennials find the Internet more frightening than older Americans

Perhaps surprisingly, the younger generation is most afraid of the Internet. Around 37% of 18–34-year-old respondents said they find the Internet scary and 35% admitted they don’t feel safe online.

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People who don't feel safe online

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People who think the Internet is scary

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One in 10 millennials have not applied for jobs because they lack confidence in their skills

Digital literacy isn’t just about recreational Internet usage. A perceived lack of digital literacy skills is impacting people in very real ways.

Around 10% of millennials said they didn’t apply for a job because they felt they didn’t have adequate digital literacy skills.

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The vast majority of Americans want to improve their digital literacy

The desire to improve digital literacy reaches far beyond the younger generation. More than eight out of 10 people surveyed said they would like to improve their digital literacy. Professional skills and personal security topped the list of priorities with 27% and 23%, respectively. Common motivators for wanting to improve digital literacy skills include saving money, staying informed and keeping up with friends and family.

Which skills would you most like to improve?

< click a skill to show a further breakdown

  • >27% Office/professional skills
  • >23% How to use the web safely
  • >12% How to get the most out of the Internet
  • >11% Other computer skills
  • >5% Connect with people
  • >5% Apply for jobs
  • >17% I do not want to improve any computer skills
How confident would you be in ...? (% that aren't confident)
Setting up a video call online 33%
Setting up a LinkedIn profile 29%
Taking and uploading photos to social media 25%
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How would you describe your computer skills?
I have good computer skills 57%
I have excellent computer skills/I am an expert 21%
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Why do you want to improve these skills?
To do my current job better 38%
To find a better job 31%
To find a new career 22%
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Why do you want to improve these skills?
To do my current job better 38%
To find a better job 31%
To find a new career 22%
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Why do you want to improve these skills?
I'm worried about computer viruses 77%
I'm scared of having my identity stolen 70%
I'm scared of fraud 54%
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Why do you want to improve these skills?
I want to be able to find the things I need on the Internet 57%
I want to be better informed 56%
I want to stay on top of my game/generally learn more 47%
I want to be able to save money 39%
I want to be able to shop online 26%
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Why do you want to improve these skills?
I want to stay in touch with my friends and family 71%
I want to keep up with new trends 42%
I want to keep up with the younger generation 25%
I'm lonely 16%
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Improved professional skills & web safety are also top priorities for millennials

It’s not just the older generations that want to improve their professional skills and stay safe online. One in four 18–34-year-olds highlighted the use of professional software as the area they most want to develop, and 24% of the same age group wanted to learn how to use the web safely.

Americans who want to improve their office / professional skills

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Americans who want to know how to use the web more safely

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What’s stopping people from improving their digital literacy?

Why aren’t people taking steps to improve their digital literacy, despite the desire to do so? Almost a quarter of Americans (23%) say they don’t know where to go for help. Other common barriers include cost and time constraints, while 11% confess they’re too embarrassed to admit they don’t know how to find things online.

  • 39%I don't have enough time
  • 28%I can't afford a course
  • 23%I don't know where to go for help
  • 11%I'm embarrassed to admit I can't do things
  • 11%My friends/family do it for me

What does this all mean?

While many Americans are scared, overwhelmed or confused by the Internet and the technology evolving around them, they can’t imagine their lives without it. This survey shows people recognize the importance of improving their software skills and staying safe on the web, and are motivated to master new skills and make themselves more digitally literate. However, they are discouraged by time and cost restrictions, not knowing where to turn for help and feeling too embarrassed to admit inadequacies—even though they know these skills could help improve their lives.

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