Low 'digital literacy' still holding some consumers back from a life online

11 Jun 2013  |  Ellen Hammett 

New research from Ofcom has shone light on the behaviour of consumers as they use the Internet.

The report, carried out by Ipsos MORI, found that attitudes towards the Internet and the role it plays in our lives varies widely, dictated primarily by levels of 'digital literacy'.

For those with a high digital literacy, the Internet was found to be a main way of engaging with the world - sometimes perceived as the only way. The results were similar for those with a medium digital literacy - whereby the Internet played a key part in their lives and they had become adept in using it for distinct tasks.

Those with low digital literacy, however, performed a limited range of tasks and tended to find it difficult to learn new things. The research found that this group felt 'inconvenienced' if information they wanted was only available online.

One respondent, a single mother and homemaker with low digital literacy said that she felt 'pressured' to be online and felt nervous about using computers, particularly when it came to privacy. As a result, the respondent said that they felt 'safer' doing things offline.

At the other end of the spectrum, one respondent with a high digital literacy said that the Internet is central to their life.

"It's easier; there's more choice, it's more convenient, you can shop from the comfort of your own home, you can get options for delivery," said the retail worker.

The same respondent was also much more confident in sharing personal details online, including shopping, using banking facilities and contacting their credit card company via email, rather than phone or in person.

For the medium and high groups in general, the convenience and cost savings of shopping online outweighed its potential risks for most participants, with online habits dominated, to a large extent, by big brands.

Larger brands were believed to have better security in place and to be more willing and able to cover costs if something were to go wrong. Relying on big brands as a 'safety blanket' meant that users felt they did not have to be on the alert for potential scams.

Low digital literacy users tended to shop through familiar high street stores, often through websites that had been recommended by friends and family.

There were also strong implications for social networking, with some limiting activity due to privacy and security concerns.

"I don't do Facebook, I don't believe in people seeing what you do with all your life or whatever you do," one respondent said. "I just think that your life is private and I want to keep it that way."

Another respondent said: "My sister puts things on there [Facebook] like 'Off to my uncle tomorrow for three weeks'. And I say to her, you shouldn't put that information on there because you don't want everyone to know that your house is going to be empty for three weeks."

The report found that people are seeing it as inevitable that an increasing number of daily activities will move online in the near future, with most of those with low and medium digital literacy inclined to see the potential of being more digitally literate.

However, there were a few who saw the Internet as having a predominantly negative effect on people and society, and did not wish to deepen their understanding.

There were also those who were not necessarily positive about the 'digital revolution', but felt that they must try and keep up as to not get left behind.

Participants could imagine the benefits of a more symbiotic relationship between humans and technology and predicted that personal information would be increasingly commoditised, but also that they would have greater control over their data.

"What do I care if they know what milk I buy and when?" said one respondent. "In the grand scheme of things who cares whether somebody buys Heinz or Branston, except Heinz or Branston?"

A full report of the findings can be read here.

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