One click and your favorite band’s new single sounds out of the computer’s loudspeaker. Within seconds, the most recent political and economic news items appear on the screen while you quickly send an email to your colleagues. Regardless of whether we are at work or at home, the World Wide Web has become an integral part of our everyday lives. For the majority of people in Germany, unrestricted access to the internet to find, read and exchange interesting pages is taken for granted. It has never been so easy to access information quickly, to communicate or simply to let yourself be entertained. More and more people are logging on, not only in Germany, but across Europe. However, a detailed look reveals that there continue to be differences between individual countries.
One thing seems to be certain: the World Wide Web’s success cannot be halted. A GfK Verein survey of nine European countries has shown that the number of internet users in Europe has increased again in the past two years. On average, in 2009, almost half of European respondents over the age of 14 had used the internet in the three months leading up to the survey. By 2011, this figure had increased to almost two in three. At 88%, the Netherlands are still the frontrunners in terms of internet use, followed by the UK (77%), France (73%), Germany (71%) and Austria (70%). Southern and Eastern European countries included in the survey lay at the other end of the scale. While more than half of the population in Poland, Italy and Spain are online, currently only 44% of Russians use the internet.
Will these European regions continue to stay offline in future? This is unlikely, as at least some of the Southern and Eastern European countries in the survey are recording particularly high growth in internet use. In Russia, nearly twice as many people access the internet today than two years ago, while in Italy the number of people logging on increased by 17 percentage points. The figure also increased by 15 percentage points in Poland. Growth rates are only lagging behind in Spain, where the number of internet users increased by just 8 percentage points over the past two years.
The growth figures in the countries in which the majority of the population already surfs the Web regularly are somewhat lower. At the top of the table is the Netherlands, but here the number of users only rose by 7 percentage points in the last two years, while Germany’s figure increased by 10 percentage points and the UK’s by 11. Among the countries with high internet penetration, Austria registered the greatest growth. Today, 70% of those surveyed in Austria use the internet compared with just 56% two years ago. The situation is similar in France, the country of “savoir vivre”, where approximately three out of four respondents currently go online in comparison with 61% two years ago.
“Peter Altmaier is a star on the internet. He started tweeting a few weeks ago, very successfully.” This is how “heute.de” journalist Dominik Rzepka began the article of his interview with the CDU parliamentary secretary in October. The tweeting politician did not just attract Rzepka’s attention, but also that of “Der Spiegel” and “FAZ” which also published articles on Altmaier. Although the use of Twitter may not (yet) be high on the agenda of many of his ministerial colleagues, Peter Altmaier is certainly not alone with his internet affinity. Individuals who, like him, belong to the higher social classes, are generally also using the internet. In this social group, 88% of respondents said they had used the internet within the last three months. As social status decreases, the percentage of individuals who are offline increases. While three out of four middle class Europeans are online, this figure drops to 60% among the lower classes.
Alongside social status, age also plays a role. The internet is an indispensible part of life for students or apprentices who are generally younger. The Web is used by 95% of this group. In contrast, only about a quarter of European pensioners used the internet in the past three months. Social status is even more important when it comes to this latter group. While 40% of middle class pensioners use the internet, this figure drops to 17% for pensioners from lower social backgrounds.
A united Europe is what so many politicians wish for in view of the financial difficulties, but this is also still a long way off even when it comes to internet usage. The lifestyle groups that individuals belong to have a different influence on internet use in the various countries. In the Netherlands and the UK, for example, a higher average age makes less difference than in other European countries, with older respondents using the Web more than average, irrespective of the social level to which they belong. This is in stark contrast to Russia, where only a fraction of the older generation uses the internet. Consequently, Russia brings up the rear in the rankings. The situation is somewhat better in Poland, where older respondents are online slightly more, although the country is still below the European average. In Spain and Italy, social status does make a real difference and it is above all the older members of the population in lower social situations who rarely use the internet.
The future could be slightly different, because variations in internet use are disappearing in the younger generation, in particular. Regardless of whether they live in Poland or Spain, Italy or the Netherlands, the vast majority of individuals in education and training are online. The internet is an integral part of everyday life for them and whoever accesses it once, generally stays connected. This could conceivably lead to the possibility of the internet becoming a “global marketplace” in future where everybody meets, at least in Europe.
Data source: GfK Verein (European Consumer 2011, Q1 2011, European Consumer 2009, Q1 2009)
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