In 2019, about 10% of Americans still did not use the internet. In a world where globalization, communication, technology, media, and even political campaigning have been revolutionized by the internet, what can people do without it? We used to do EVERYTHING without the internet, now there is almost nothing we cannot do with the internet, and there are a few things we can ONLY do with the internet. Especially with the pandemonium of 2020, it is important to remember how much we rely on the internet, and not take it for granted, because there are many people that still do not have it.
At the turn of the 21st Century, about half of all Americans were using the internet, since then its usage has become nearly ubiquitous. Developers capitalized on the rise of the internet to offer services that had previously been difficult or time consuming, like shopping, or renting videos. The internet revolutionized nearly every industry and has been a method of information-sharing for scientists, students, and anyone interested in learning. Nearly everything and everyone has moved online. According to the Pew Research Foundation, there is correlation between internet usage and certain population groups. Senior citizens are much less likely to use the internet than younger people, and the majority of people who do not use the internet live in rural communities or are in a low-income bracket.
Internet seemed critical to our lives in late 2019, with some people even suggesting it should be a free utility or a human right. Connectivity was already important to us before the COVID-19 Coronavirus pandemic swept the nation and the world. With the onset of the pandemic, the way we lived our lives shifted even more towards the online. To social distance, many people only shopped online, even ordering groceries for delivery. Work and school immediately went online, forcing many students and workers to use their own private technology to connect. This transition was difficult on everyone, but if 1 in 10 people in the USA do not have internet at home, how do they cope? Places which previously offered free Wi-fi, like coffee shops and public buildings, are no longer an option, especially back during the peak of the stay-at-home orders. In Ohio, 710,000 households did not have broadband internet, and two thirds of those households had income lower than $35k a year, with many below the poverty line. The answer may be that they are not in fact able to cope, or at least may not be able to change their lifestyles during the pandemic. Working people without internet would be unable to telecommute and they have had to perform their jobs like before the pandemic, leaving them substantially more at risk than workers who were able to switch to working from home. Being unable to work from home or order groceries for delivery means exposing yourself to the outside world every day, raising your chances of infection. A lack of connectivity can also limit a person’s ability to access news and public health resources, making households without internet a potential public health risk.
When work and school went online for many, there were questions sloppily answered about how the transition would go. Most industries did not have a plan for transitioning all of their employees online, which led to massive lay-offs and very stressful work environments. Students, their teachers, and their parents also experienced this stress. For many, school was childcare, how could online school perform the same function? Online school also faced the challenge of how to replicate the physical learning tasks in a way students could comprehend. Working over the internet faced similar problems, many jobs have a necessary physical aspect, while others discovered that there was little need for an actual office and employees faced few issues working from home. COVID-19 has shown class stratification, the wealthy were able to adjust to the restraints of the pandemic, while Americans living paycheck-to-paycheck struggle to make ends meet, let alone keep safe. The internet, and access to technology, are currently being treated like privileges even with all the recent proof that they are necessities.
Our relationship to the internet can be complicated, are we too dependent on it? The Coronavirus pandemic has given a more worrying concern about internet dependence: can the internet sustain our usage of it? With everyone going online at all hours of the day, the internet is getting throttled, service providers are struggling to keep the internet running at acceptable speeds. The past few months have been a difficult time for everyone, even people with consistent access to the internet are feeling a lot of stress from the pandemic, but also from the shift in everyday life. Before the pandemic, it was easier to get outside and away from the computer or phone screen, now there is no commute to work or walk to school. Most people are spending much more time online to make up for the lack of social experiences. Spending too much time in front of screens has already been proven to be bad for us and constitutes a potential public health risk by itself. Without even mentioning the negative health effects of staying inside all day, spending too much time on the internet increases anxiety and can cause sleeping problems, as well as physical problems like carpal tunnel and eye strain. The shift online comes with another complex issue: will things go back to normal after the pandemic? It is hopeful that some aspects of life will return to normal, but there are many positives to be taken away from the current situation. For those who can access the internet at least, it is an equalizer, people with disabilities or other specific needs have been better able to access work and learning, there is a big increase in accessibility when work can be performed online.
In conclusion, the internet has been a great boon to society, it offers accessibility to services and information; something that has become critical during the current pandemic. Unfortunately, not everyone has consistent access to the internet. A lack of online connectivity is actively dangerous in modern America because the majority of public health information is online and cannot be easily accessed without the internet. The transition online has presented challenges, many of which we are still facing, and we do not know the future of online work and school when the pandemic ends. Internet access should be available everywhere, it offers indispensable services and opportunities.