When the coronavirus outbreak led to widespread shutdowns and stay-at-home orders throughout the country in March, many Americans were forced to adapt and shift parts of their daily routines. Some of these adaptations have relied heavily on technology – including adults working from home and students engaging in online learning. Many other activities – like social gatherings, fitness classes, school activities and medical appointments – went virtual for a time, though some of these activities have resumed in person in many places.
Over the course of the COVID-19 outbreak in the United States, Pew Research Center has studied Americans’ attitudes about the role and effectiveness of various technologies and their views about digital privacy and data collection as it relates to the pandemic. Here is what we found.
The internet has been an important part of Americans’ lives
A month into the COVID-19 outbreak, 87% of U.S. adults said the internet had been at least important for them personally during the outbreak, including 53% who deemed the internet as “essential” for them personally, according to a survey conducted in April 2020. Americans’ views on the importance of the internet during that time varied greatly by age and educational attainment. Adults under the age of 50 were far more likely than those ages 50 and older to say the internet has been essential for them during the outbreak (63% vs. 41%). And while 65% of college graduates said that the internet had been essential for them during the outbreak, those shares dropped to about half or fewer for those with some college experience or high school education or less.
At the same time, roughly half of adults (49%) said that a major interruption in their internet or cellphone service during the coronavirus outbreak would be a very big problem for daily life in their household, according to a March survey. Another 28% said it would present a moderately big problem, and 16% said it would be a small problem.
Again, age and level of formal education are factors. Adults under the age of 65 were more likely than those 65 and older to say this type of outage would be a very big problem. And those with a bachelor’s or advanced degree were more likely than those with lower levels of educational attainment to say this.
Despite early fears about the internet buckling under pressure as traffic rose substantially since the beginning of the pandemic in the U.S., internet performance remained mostly stable and providers say speeds have decreased only slightly in some areas.
But even though the internet and mobile phones helped Americans fill the gap left by the decline in face-to-face contact with others, a majority of Americans (64%) said in March that the internet and phones would be useful but not be an adequate substitute for in-person interactions. On the other hand, 27% of adults said that conducting these everyday interactions online or by telephone because of recommended limits on social contact during the COVID-19 outbreak would be just as good as in-person contact. Roughly three-quarters of college graduates (73%) said that if their everyday interactions had to be done online or by phone, it would help but not be a replacement for in-person contact. That figure was lower among those who have some college experience (63%) and those with a high school education or less (56%).
Dependence on the internet and mobile phones raised concerns about affordability
Even as majorities deemed the internet important during the outbreak and described a potential disruption to their services as problematic, many Americans – particularly those with lower incomes – were concerned about paying for this connectivity. About three-in-ten broadband users (28%) said they worried a lot or some about paying their home broadband bill over the next few months, according to an April survey. Similarly, 30% of smartphone users expressed some or a lot of worry about paying for their cellphone bill over the next few months. Hispanics and adults who live in households with lower incomes were among those who were most likely to say they were worried about paying for these services. For instance, about half or more of broadband and smartphone users with lower incomes said they worried a lot about paying for both broadband and cellphone bills, compared with about one-quarter of those with middle incomes and roughly one-in-ten of those with higher incomes who expressed the same amount of worry.
Despite notable shares saying they were worried about paying their broadband and cellphone bills, a majority of adults overall said the government does not have a responsibility to ensure all Americans have a high-speed internet connection (62%) or cellphone services (65%) at home during the coronavirus outbreak, according to the same April survey. For both home internet and cellphone services, Democrats and independents who lean toward the Democratic Party were more likely than Republicans and their leaners to think the government should be responsible for ensuring access.
The pandemic highlighted concerns about the digital divide due to school closures and the shift to online learning
As schools around the country shut down due to the spread of the coronavirus, many parents were worried that the lack of a computer or high-speed internet connection at home would hinder their children’s ability to keep up with schoolwork. About six-in-ten lower-income parents with children whose K-12 schools closed in the spring (59%) said in an April survey it was at least somewhat likely that their child would face at least one digital obstacle while doing their schoolwork at home during the coronavirus outbreak. Three-in-ten parents who have middle incomes also thought it was at least somewhat likely this would be an issue, while 13% of those with a higher income said the same.
Across all parents whose child’s school was closed, roughly three-in-ten parents (29%) said it was very or somewhat likely their child would have to do their schoolwork on a cellphone. About one-in-five parents said it was at least somewhat likely their child would have to use public Wi-Fi to finish their schoolwork because they lacked a reliable home internet connection (22%) or would not be able to complete their schoolwork because they did not have access to a computer at home (21%) during the outbreak.
While most Americans (80%) said in the same April survey that K-12 schools should have a responsibility to provide computers to at least some students during the outbreak, there were differences in whether people said this should be done for all students or just those who can’t afford this technology.
Some 37% of Americans said schools should be responsible for providing laptops or tablet computers to all students in order to help them complete their schoolwork at home during the coronavirus outbreak, while 43% said schools should be responsible for providing this technology only for students whose families cannot afford it. Though Democrats and Republicans agreed that schools should be responsible for providing this technology to at least some students (44% vs. 42%, respectively), Democrats (45%) were more likely than Republicans (28%) to say schools should provide this technology to all students.
Some Americans were dubious about the effectiveness of technology for tracking the coronavirus and lacked confidence in others to keep their personal records safe
When it comes to data collection and digital privacy related to the COVID-19 outbreak, only a minority of Americans said in April that they thought cellphone tracking would be beneficial for curbing the spread of the virus. Some 38% said that if the government tracked people’s locations through their cellphone during the coronavirus outbreak it would help at least a little in limiting the spread of the virus. A larger share – 60% – said this type of tracking by the government would not make much of a difference in limiting the spread of the coronavirus.
In other efforts to slow the spread of the coronavirus, many states launched large-scale contact tracing programs, which public health officials use to trace the spread of the virus by connecting with those who have tested positive for COVID-19 or those who have been exposed to a positive case. Half of adults said in a July survey they would be not at all or not too comfortable sharing location data from their cellphone with a public health official during the coronavirus outbreak. A slightly smaller share of Americans (41%) said they would be not at all or not too likely to speak with a public health official who contacted them by phone or text message to speak with them about the virus.
In that contact tracing survey, Americans also were asked in July about their levels of confidence in different groups when it comes to keeping their personal records safe. Half of adults said they were not at all or not too confident that the federal government would keep their personal records safe from hackers or unauthorized users. About four-in-ten adults (41%) said they lacked confidence that public health organizations will keep their records secure. A smaller share, 19%, said they were not at all or not too confident that their medical doctors or health care providers would keep their records safe.