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Internet not a necessity for some

Those who don't use the Net aren't necessarily offline because they can't afford it, according to a new study that casts some doubt on traditional theories about the digital divide.

Unwired Americans aren't necessarily offline because they can't afford it. Some are too busy or just not interested.

In a study released Wednesday that examined attitudes among those who don't use the Internet, the Pew Internet & American Life Project found that many offline Americans currently have or have had home access to the Net. The study, "The Ever-Shifting Internet Population," surveyed 3,553 Americans and also drew on research from six focus groups.

In a finding that casts some doubt on traditional theories about the digital divide, a full 20 percent of unwired Americans said they live in homes with an Internet connection. Traditionally, some Internet culture experts have assumed that the digital divide--the gulf between those who use the Internet and those who don't--was primarily the result of some people living in households that couldn't afford computers or Internet connections.

"The road to Internet use is paved with bumps and turnarounds--brought on by economic difficulties, waning interest in going online or more pressing demands on their time," researchers wrote in the report.

The study found an increase in the rate of Internet dropouts. Researchers said the number of unwired Americans who were once online but now aren't has grown. Seventeen percent of unwired Americans said they used to be online, a 4 percent jump from three years ago. And among Internet users, one-quarter said they had dropped offline for an extended period of time before coming back on.

Researchers said the study highlights a Web population that fluctuates frequently between the online and offline worlds.

"The Internet population shows much greater churn than most realize," study author Amanda Lenhart said in a statement. "A lot of people are moving in and out of the online world pretty regularly."

Just 24 percent of unwired Americans in the study were truly disconnected, having no direct or indirect experience with the Web. These people, whom the researchers called "Net evaders," shun the Web partly because of misconceptions about what the Internet has to offer. Some are worried about online porn and credit card theft. Some think the Web will be too complicated to use.

Researchers also said the Internet penetration rate--the measure of how many Americans use the Internet--has flattened since October 2001, hovering between 57 percent and 61 percent. And differences among Internet users and nonusers broke down along traditional demographic lines, with wired Americans tending to be younger, more affluent and more urban than the unwired.

The study also found some social differences among the wired and unwired. Those who are socially content and trust other people are more likely to use the Internet than those who aren't. Also, people who feel they have control over their lives are more likely to be wired than those who don't.