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Study: Net Tops in Research

It's no surprise that plenty of Americans do research using the Internet. In fact, a new study finds the Web has become the predominant source for many, a trend that's also revolutionizing consumers' use of libraries and their expectations for e-government.

The new Pew Internet and American Life Project study found that more people turn to the Internet -- whether at home, at work, in libraries or elsewhere -- than to any other source of information, including experts and family members.

Of those polled, 58 percent of people researching health-related, educational, financial, legal or career advice turned to the Internet.

Experts -- such as doctors, lawyers or financial experts -- ranked second, at 53 percent, while friends and family came in at 45 percent.

"The ascendance of the Internet has a demand-side dimension and a supply-side dimension," said Lee Rainie, director of the non-profit Pew Internet and American Life Project. "On the demand side, we clearly see that the spread of broadband has made the Internet an easy place for people to do research when they face problems.

"On the supply side, the growth of content of all sorts makes the Internet a more useful place to go exploring," he said.

Rainie said the trend is supported by the efforts of most medical institutions, government agencies, news organizations, libraries and university, which seek to "display their expertise online.

"Search engines make that content much easier to find," he added. "That creates a kind of virtuous cycle where more people come online and they find what they want, so that draws more people online and that creates incentives for placing more content online. And on and on and on."

Even those users without Internet access still make use of it for research, after a fashion: The study found that as many as 27 percent of "non-connected" consumers ask someone else to look up information for them online.

The Internet's importance is driving a number of new behaviors, the survey found. For one thing, results indicated that users between 18 and 30 years old comprised the bulk (73 percent) of Americans heading to the library to do research.

According to the survey, that fact is chiefly due to the easy access to Internet resources they find there.

One result of consumers' increasing reliance on the Internet for research is that most also expect to be able to access to government documents online, in lieu of receiving printed documents by mail or in person at government offices.

The survey found that more than half of its respondents would prefer using the Internet to interact with government. Those cases include school or work research using government material (66 percent of participants), personal tax questions (57 percent), getting a driver's license or auto permit (53 percent) and programs offered by agencies (55 percent).

The research findings skewed sharply along demographic lines. Younger and higher-income Americans both were likely to turn first to the Internet for information.

For "Generation Y" (18- to 30-year-old) survey respondents, 76 percent said they used the Internet to research, versus 35 percent of survey participants ages 62 to 73. Among respondents earning more than $40,000 annually, 70 percent used the Internet, compared to only 46 percent of those earning less.

At least part of the Internet's dominance in research could be fueled by the continuing growth in U.S. broadband, the study found. The Pew survey found that 64 percent of Americans have broadband access at home or at work, or both. Thirteen percent of respondents were limited to dial-up access.

As expected, broadband users turned to the Internet for research far more often than their dial-up peers, with 72 percent of high-access users turning to the Web -- compared to only 28 percent of those with dial-up.

Despite the vast numbers of Americans tapping the Internet for information -- whether at home, at work or at libraries -- only a small portion seem concerned about potential privacy implications.

For instance, 26 percent of those who used the Internet to research a recent problem said they were concerned they might accidentally reveal private or sensitive information about themselves to others – such as someone they know, or a private company, or a government agency.

The Pew study is based on a telephone survey of 2,796 adults from June to September, according to the group.



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