Research: Digital inequality in the Appalachian Ohio: Understanding how demographics, internet access, and skills can shape vital information use (VIU)

The Internet is one of the most revolutionizing technologies in the world, that brings with it a great deal of optimism for the betterment of humanity. In the information age, access to the Internet and the ability to use it effectively have become increasingly important for a person’s economic, political, and social wellbeing. Individuals use the Internet to not only connect to each other, but also educate themselves, share and receive information, engage in monetary transactions, entertain, and do just about everything that online communication affords.

Digital inequality can take various forms (Pearce and Rice, 2013), and is prevalent in various parts of the United States (U.S.). However, digital inequality is more acute in the rural areas of the country like the Appalachian region. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, in the year 2015, about one-fifth of Americans did not have broadband Internet at home (Ryan and Lewis, 2017); and nearly one-third of Ohioans in rural counties do not have broadband Internet access (Wedell, 2018). This translates into a wide access gap in terms of poor Internet quality, which in turn impacts Internet access, usage, levels of service adoption and utilization of beneficial outcomes.

Among other things, the internet affords certain important or vital uses according to the degree of their necessity to an individual. Through the use of the internet that requires access, media literacy, and efficient utilization, a person is able to fulfill his or her wellbeing needs, informational or learning needs, economic needs, and social connectivity needs. We are more interested in understanding vital uses of the internet that include goal-oriented activities that lead to tangible beneficial outcomes instead of purposeless time-wasting activities (Selwyn et al., 2005). We therefore introduce the concept of Vital Internet Use (VIU) to understand the factors that lead to beneficial outcomes of Internet use. VIU can be defined as the use of Internet services that are related to basic social needs such as health, education, job search, and information search. VIU also includes the use of social media as it can open doors for social and informational resources. The concept of VIU is based on the premise that even when Internet access is available, increased Internet use does not always translate into beneficial outcomes from its use. The extent of utilization of these services can potentially determine the citizens’ participation in their communities as well as the citizens’ rights acknowledgment and exercising. The focus of our research is to better understand the remaining dimensions of digital inequality among community members in Appalachia. We hope to gain new insights into how digital access varies, and how social structural differences within this understudied population may be shaping the vital uses they pursue. Through a survey, we explored digital inequalities in counties of south eastern Appalachian Ohio. We propose a comprehensive framework whereby access is understood in terms of physical Internet access (infrastructure, hardware, software), and Internet usage skills (operational, technical, navigational, cognitive-creative, and social skills) to achieve beneficial outcomes or Vital Information Use (VIU).

Abstract: Access to information and resources via the Internet is an increasingly vital dimension of contemporary life. However, there can be several impediments to optimal Internet utilization in the form of access, skills, and motivation. Even when access is available, several digital inequalities arise as citizens often lack the skills and motivations to pursue those vital uses through the Internet to the best of their advantage. Digital inequalities in the hills of the Appalachian area of Ohio are often manifested in terms of social, cultural and geographic divides. Not only do the hills block wireless signals and make cables expensive to install, but regional poverty also drives away telecom investment. We conducted a survey of Appalachian Ohio to explore digital inequity issues and the determinants of online participation for things that matter. Through a number of analyses, we explore how Internet access and digital skills impact online contribution to the community in terms of services and resources considered to be basic social needs: health, employment, education, and social media. These social needs, what we have called Vital Internet Use (VIU) can determine citizens’ political and civic participation, societal contribution, and overall benefit to their communities. Centered on the concepts of digital access, Internet skills, and benefit outcomes, we extend knowledge in this domain and propose a comprehensive framework of VIU.

The study can be access on the Telematics and Informatics journal website:
and cited as:

Khan, M. L., Welser, H. T., Cisneros, C., Manatong, G., & Idris, I. K. (2020). Digital inequality in the Appalachian Ohio: Understanding how demographics, internet access, and skills can shape vital information use (VIU). Telematics and Informatics50, 101380.

A pdf of the article (author’s personal copy) is available here, for research and educational purposes only.

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