Home, School, Borrowed, Public or Mobile: Variations in Young Singaporeans' Internet Access and Their Implications
This paper studied uneven Internet access amongst young people in Singapore. The study finds that young Singaporeans access the Internet mainly through home, school, borrowed, public, and mobile sources, with different implications for each type of Internet access. For those with home or mobile access, Internet use was routinised and often intense, even burdensome and distracting on occasions. For those who relied on borrowed, school, or public access, intermittent use appeared adequate but hampered their ability to hone online skills to the levels of their peers. The study also finds that although systematic incorporation of IT into the national curriculum can encourage parity in basic exposure to online skills, developing greater Internet proficiency is more likely with home Internet access.
With the Internet assuming a growing presence in young people's lives in their education, employment, and social interaction, research on inequalities in young people's Internet access is intensifying. ICT skills are increasingly critical to individual performance and achievement in school and at work, and young people who are bereft of ICT skills would be severely hampered in their ability to maximise any educational or career opportunities which are available to them (Holloway & Valentine, 2003). Socially too, youth peer networks are increasingly conducting their interaction and communication online via online social networking, instant messaging, and e-mail (Ling & Haddon, 2008). As the significant body of literature on the digital divide shows (for reviews of the literature, see e.g. Selwyn, 2004 and van Dijk, 2006), lack of access to digital technologies can exacerbate social exclusion. Of late, however, there has been a discernible shift in the literature, away from a dichotomous digital divide between the haves and have-nots, towards a consideration of inter alia, uneven access (Haddon, 2004), digital differentiation (Peter & Valkenburg, 2006), and gradations in digital inclusion (Livingstone & Helsper, 2007). Such approaches argue that since Internet access has become so pervasive in some societies, access, or the lack thereof is less critical an issue than the types of Internet access available, the corresponding quality of the Internet experience afforded, as well as the range and depth of online skills developed. This shift in the research agenda has been accompanied by exhortations to study inequalities in young people's Internet access because all too often, young people are unrealistically portrayed as ‘digital natives' (Prensky, 2001) who adopt technology effortlessly. Yet research on the low and nonuse of the Internet by young people demonstrates that they too, face challenges in their access to and use of the Internet. This paper seeks to build on that line of research by studying inequalities in Internet access amongst young people in Singapore, where Internet access is widespread and within easy reach, given the country's dense urban landscape. Despite the ubiquity of the Internet in Singapore, 10% of Singaporeans aged 7–14 and 4% of those aged 15–24 have never used the Internet (Infocomm Development Authority [IDA], June 2008). Among those who have, variations in the nature and quality of Internet access exist. Young Singaporeans access the Internet at home (90% of 7–14's; 95% of 15–24's), school (70%; 47%), another person's home (8%; 7%), community facilities such as libraries and community clubs (5%; 4%), and commercial facilities such as LAN game centres (2%; 4%).
To better understand variations in young Singaporeans' Internet access, this study employed media diaries and postdiary interviews with 12 primary, secondary, and tertiary level students with different types of Internet access. In so doing, it seeks to understand how differences in Internet access relate to variations in Internet use, thereby contributing to the literature on young people and the digital divide. The paper first presents background information on the provision of Internet services in Singapore and existing data on young Singaporeans' Internet use. It then reviews literature pertaining to the measures and implications of uneven Internet access. Next, the paper presents the findings from the media diaries and interviews by age group, following which, it offers a typology of variations in Internet access before discussing the implications of such variations.
Singapore has the world's highest broadband Internet penetration rate, at 99.9% (W. Tan, 2009). Yet this figure, derived from the International Telecommunications Union's (ITU) formula of dividing the number of broadband subscriptions by the total number of households in the country, belies the fact that some households have multiple subscriptions while others have none. Nonetheless, Singapore's broadband subscription costs are the lowest worldwide–when combined with fixed and mobile phone line subscriptions, total communication costs constitute only 0.4% of the average monthly income in Singapore (ITU, 2009). Residential broadband price plans are affordable and typically do not impose data caps. Monthly rates for unlimited usage range from S$19.90 (≈US$13.00) for a bandwidth speed of 1 mbps to S$58 (≈US$37.00) for 10 mbps (Singtel, 2009). Notably too, Internet service providers often offer new broadband subscribers free laptop or desktop computers to further incentivise subscription. Singapore also has an extensive free public Wi-Fi network which is in place until 2010 as part of the government's Wireless@SG scheme and can be accessed at shopping malls, community centres, public libraries, and clinics and hospitals via laptops and mobile phones (IDA, 2 Sep 2008).
Young Singaporeans are the country's most avid Internet users, with 90% of 7–14-year-olds and 96% of 15–24-year-olds having accessed the Internet in the preceding 12 months (IDA, June 2008). 96% of Singaporeans aged 15–24 access the Internet at least once a week, constituting the heaviest Internet user group (IDA, June 2008). The three most popular activities for this age group are communicating, including via e-mail, instant messaging, social networking, etc. (83%); leisure activities, including online gaming, reading online newspapers and magazines, watching web television, etc. (57%); and information seeking, including general web browsing and obtaining information on goods, services, job opportunities, health issues, etc. (51%). Within Singapore schools, ICT use is incorporated into 30% of curriculum time through its use in instruction, online learning portals, and interactive educational games (Koh, 2007). The vast majority of schools are state-run, coming under the purview of the Ministry of Education (MOE) which promotes ICT use in schools by providing network infrastructure, hardware, and curricular support. The ratio of computers to pupils in primary school is set at 6.6:1 and for 5:1 for secondary and preuniversity pupils respectively (MOE, 2004). Various aid programmes have also been introduced to ensure that every school-going child can purchase home computers and subscribe to home Internet access at heavily subsidised prices (MOE, 2009). Students at all levels are regularly required to research, prepare, and submit assignments using the Internet, via online platforms such as the e-learning portal Lead.com.sg. Career guidance is also offered online through a portal which enables students to take profiling tests, create electronic portfolios, track their academic achievement, and acquire interview skills through online videos and quizzes (A. Tan, 2009). Given the importance of the Internet in the lives of young Singaporeans, it is therefore crucial to appreciate the differences in Internet access amongst them and how these differences relate to variations in Internet use.
Uneven Internet Access Amongst Young People–Measures and Implications
The phenomenon of inequalities in access to ICTs has been termed ‘uneven access' and several measures have been used to gauge this unevenness, including the extent to which ICTs are incorporated into the lives of adopters, the quality of the experience of using ICTs, and the breadth and depth of ICT-related skills which adopters develop (Haddon, 2004, p. 13).
Research on young people shows that even amongst the proverbial digital natives, there exist low or nonusers for whom the Internet is only of peripheral importance and does not dominate their lives as is popularly assumed. A study of young Britons by Livingstone and Helsper (2007) found that of the 9- to 11-year-olds surveyed, there were ‘choose-nots' who had Internet access at home but rarely used it, and ‘marginal users' who did not have home Internet access and hardly used it at school or other locations. Of the 12–15 year olds, a third category of ‘voluntary drop-outs' arose, comprising those who had home access but who used it less than they did before. A fourth category of ‘involuntary drop-outs' emerged from the 16- to 17-year-olds, comprising those who previously had home Internet access but no longer. Notably, the study found that the proportion of dropouts rose with age and gaining Internet access was a problem for the oldest respondents. Across the age groups, the main reasons preventing greater Internet use were, in decreasing order of salience, limited access, lack of interest, safety, parental restrictions and lack of skills. A study of Dutch adolescents by Peter and Valkenburg (2006) identified young Internet users at the other extreme–the ubiquitous Internetters who were online all day, regardless of time and location. Such users had greater socioeconomic, cognitive, and cultural resources and given the Netherlands' high Internet penetration, they could easily avail of multiple Internet sources. In combination, the two studies suggest that in countries with high Internet penetration, depending on the type of access which young people enjoy, the extent of incorporation of the Internet into their lives can range from nonuse to intensive use with gradations of use lying between these two extremes.
Extant research also suggests that the quality of the Internet experience varies with the type of Internet access and is contingent on several factors. These include the quality of the equipment and Internet connections (Hassani, 2006); the autonomy that users have in terms of the time and freedom to explore (Dimaggio, Hargittai, Celeste & Shafer, 2004); the level of privacy which they enjoy (Hassani, 2006); and the nature, type, and extent of social support available to them (Dimaggio et al, 2004; Kling, 1998). These indicators are useful for considering the relative advantages and disadvantages of home Internet access, access in schools, access in public venues such as libraries and finally, mobile access. While not specifically focused on Internet access, studies comparing children's computer access at home and at school suggest that they prefer home access because access in school is limited, shared with other students and often inferior in their software and hardware provisions (Mumtaz, 2001; Sutherland, Facer, Furlong, & Furlong, 2000). Computer and Internet access in schools also has restrictions in the form of rules, policies, monitoring, control, and the installation of filtering software (Colley, 2003; Valcke, Schellens, Van Keer, and Gerarts, 2007). Similarly, a study of children's computer use in a public library found that they used the computers mostly for games, and rarely for chat and e-mail, partly because such activities are not actively promoted by the library (Gross, Dresang & Holt, 2004). In contrast, home access gives users an extended period of time to explore the many layers of the medium and to engage in spontaneous and experimental learning (Facer & Furlong, 2001; Kuhlemeier & Hemker, 2007; Sutherland et al, 2000). Apart from greater autonomy of use which home computer access affords, it also offers a level of privacy not equalled by school or public access, which can facilitate particular online activities. For example, Hassani (2006) found that while accessing the Internet from multiple locations benefits users, the home is the prime location because users who cite the home as among the places they use the Internet are most likely to use the Internet to search for health and product information, make purchases, and bank online. With regard to social support, home access can be advantageous for young people because it presents opportunities for parental guidance and peer sharing of knowledge (Bakardjieva, 2005; Livingstone, 2005; Sutherland et al., 2000; Vekiri & Chronaki, 2008), although some studies show that parents do not always avail of such opportunities (Aslanidou & Menexes, 2008; Valcke et al, 2007). As for school or public access locations, social support could be in the form of trained personnel to support users with technical difficulties. As Kling (1998) argues, such support is vital for users to make the most of the Internet.
The relationship between the quality of Internet experience and online skills appears to be a synergistic one where the stronger one's online skills are, the more one can derive from the medium and thus, the higher the quality of the Internet experience. At the same time however, the higher the quality of the Internet experience, the better the conditions are for online skills to develop and flourish (Haddon, 2004; Livingstone & Helsper, 2007). The issue of skills is significant because skill disparities can widen the knowledge gap (Bonfadelli, 2002) and influence the nature of use, e.g. to use IT for entertainment rather than for education (van Dijk, 2005) or ‘capital-enhancing’ services (Hargittai & Hinnant, 2008).
‘Technological fluency’ is the ability to effectively use technology to interact socially and to acquire skills and knowledge, and to adapt technology use to changing circumstances (McKay, Thurlow and Zimmerman, 2005, p. 188). Technological fluency vis- à-vis the Internet would comprise the ability to effectively use the Internet to acquire and disseminate information; engage in communication activities via platforms such as e-mail, online chat, and blogging; entertain oneself through downloading and consuming online content such as music, videos, and games; multitask online; and deal with technical difficulties etc. The ability to search for information online has been identified as a key online skill (Hargittai, 2005). It has been observed that young people in particular have less patience when operating in the online environment, possess poor research skills, and lack the ability to assess online information in a critical and discerning manner (Livingstone, 2003). The ability to multitask online is also seen as an increasingly critical skill, particularly with regard to academic and workplace performance, because the Internet environment often presents competing demands (Clark, 2005; Foehr, 2006; Gross, 2004; Manhart, 2005). As Gross (2004) observes, the rising trend of students being assigned Internet-based homework tests their time- and attention management skills in terms of completing their tasks while maintaining online contact with their peers. At the workplace, too, concerns have been raised about employees' productivity and their ability to concentrate on work while chatting online, ‘tweeting’ and updating their Facebook accounts (Conner, 2008). Multitasking is also viewed as a tactic to cope with the deluge of information available online (Herring, 2008), although it has also been found to impede performance (Rubenstein, Meyer and Evans, 2001). Some studies have also noted age-related trends in young people's technological fluency. Livingstone & Helsper (2007) found that older teens with more Internet expertise engage in a larger number and broader range of online activities, thereby manifesting greater technological fluency. Colley (2003) compared the perceptions of younger and older students towards computing in school and found that 11- to 12-year-olds disliked computer malfunctions most, due probably to their lower skills levels, and liked playing games most, viewing the computer as more of a plaything than a tool. Fifteen- to sixteen-year-olds liked Internet use and the advantages of computer use for completing work best, reflecting their relative sophistication in computer use.
This paper aims to build on these prior efforts at understanding young people's Internet use by focusing on uneven Internet access amongst young Singaporean and its implications. Specifically, it seeks to address the following research questions:
- 1)How, and for what reasons, does Internet access vary amongst young Singaporeans?
- 2)Depending on the type of Internet access which young Singaporeans have,
- a.What is the extent of the incorporation of the Internet into their daily lives?
- b.What is the quality of their Internet experience?
- c.What is the nature and level of technological fluency which they are able to attain?
The 12 media diaries of young Singaporeans presented here were drawn from a media diary study involving 40 individuals comprising young people, adults, and senior citizens. The study, funded by a government agency tasked with promoting media adoption, was focused on understanding how Singaporeans incorporate all forms of media–print, broadcast, mobile, and Internet–into their daily lives. As requested by the funding agency, a research company was engaged to recruit the study informants based on predetermined socioeconomic groups which represent as broad a range of media adopters as possible. Of the 40, 12 were young people, all of whom were full-time students - four primary (elementary) school students (7 to 12 years old), four secondary (high) and preuniversity students (13–18 years old) and four tertiary level students (19 to 23 years old). This youth sample comprised six pairs of subjects spread out across these different age groups, thus enabling life stage analysis (Herring, 2008) to be conducted. Within each pairing, both informants were of roughly equivalent age and were also of the same gender in all but one case1. Also, in order to facilitate comparisons, half of each pairing had to have home Internet access and the other half did not2. For informants aged 18 and below, parental consent was sought. Upon the completion of the diaries and postdiary interviews, all informants were presented with a shopping voucher as a token of appreciation.
The study was conducted in July and August 2007. The 72-hour media diaries straddled weekdays and weekends (either Sunday, Monday, and Tuesday or Thursday, Friday, and Saturday), thus providing insights into how young Singaporeans use media as they live, study, work, and play, the variety of media consumed, the social and physical contexts in which individual and shared media use occurs, the nature of media multitasking, as well as the media literacy challenges which they encounter in their media use. The diary format was adapted from the Kaiser Family Foundation study on teens' media multitasking (Foehr, 2006), with modifications that took into account local varieties of media content and characteristics of Singaporean lifestyles. A sample page from the media diary is at Appendix A. In the diary, respondents were asked to record all instances of print, broadcast or digital media use and to note specifically, the:
- •type of activity, e.g. viewing of free-to-air or cable television, blogging, participating in online discussion forums, sending and receiving SMS, etc.
- •context of use, i.e. individual or shared, with friends, colleagues, family members, etc.
- •location of use, i.e. whether it was mobile use-on-the-go or at a fixed location, e.g. home, workplace or school, etc.
- •time of use
The day after completing the diaries, respondents were interviewed face-to-face in their own homes, where they were asked to reflect on their diaries and to recount any memorable instances in their media use, e.g. doubts about programmes they had viewed, difficulties in obtaining or understanding information from particular sources, excitement about receiving feedback on blog entries etc. The postdiary interviews probed the young people about how they used media and technology in their everyday lives, any gratifications or frustrations which they derived from it, and their aspirations for future technology use. The interviews were semistructured with a list of broad themes and prompts that had to be covered, but which also allowed for topics of interest to be explored further if any arose. The informants' parents were asked to comment on their children's interview responses if any clarifications were necessary. All interviews were conducted in English as it is the working language in Singapore as well as the language of instruction in Singaporean schools. Hence, all interviewees were fluent in English. All interviews were audio recorded and transcribed for analysis. They were first analysed using the “meaning condensation” approach (Kvale 1996) where large amounts of interview text were first compressed into brief statements representing the various themes raised during the interviews. Interrelations between the various themes were mapped out manually with pen and paper and reorganised so that some themes were gazetted as metathemes and others, subthemes. These themes were then used to classify the text by appending them to the margins of the transcripts. Different portions of text labelled with the same themes were then grouped together using Microsoft Word so that trends and divergences could be noted and analysed.
Media use amongst young Singaporeans of different age groups
In the following sections, data drawn from the media diaries is summarised and discussed by age group to present a picture of the different types of media owned and/or used by young Singaporeans, with special attention paid to their Internet and mobile phone use. It should be noted that the durations of media use collated from the media diaries do not reflect the exact amount of time spent on each medium, but the number of hours in which the use of a particular medium occurred. For example, an informant did not actually spend 30 hours using the mobile phone but there were a total of 30 hours in which the informant did use a mobile phone.
Primary school students
Of the four informants in this age group, only Darren and Meilin had home Internet access, which their families had first acquired to support their older siblings' education. Both of them had to compete with their siblings for use of the shared computers and were prohibited from using the computers excessively on weekdays, although these rules were not as strictly imposed on weekends or if they were doing their schoolwork. As for those without home Internet access, Viswa's family was unable to afford a home computer while Charmaine's father felt that home Internet access was not necessary until she advanced to secondary school. Instead, they both accessed the Internet at school or by using computers at the homes of relatives who lived close by. When they encountered difficulties and needed help, they sought their relatives' assistance. During the diary period, the combined number of hours in which Internet and computer use was noted was considerably higher for those with home computer and Internet access, with Darren and Meilin at 14 and 9 hours compared to Viswa and Charmaine at 4 and 0 hours respectively. In terms of their range of online experience, all four children had experience browsing websites, using e-learning portals and playing online games. Despite lacking home Internet access, Viswa and Charmaine had been exposed to Internet use at school and at relatives' homes. However, Darren and Meilin were more experienced in online communication activities, having engaged in e-mail, instant messaging, and chat room participation with their peers. With regard to mobile phone use, although Charmaine and Meilin had personal mobile phones, they did not use them at all during the diary period. This was due to the fact that the phones had been purchased for them by their parents for emergencies or to microcoordinate schedules, and not for communicating with peers. While David did not have his own mobile phone, he experimented with his father's mobile phone whenever they were outdoors and he needed a diversion.
All four informants in this age group had experience using the Internet for schoolwork (researching and submitting assignments), entertainment (watching online videos and/or playing online games) and communicating with friends (through e-mail, instant messaging, and/or social networking sites such as Friendster). Of the four, only Jasmine and Luke had home Internet access which their parents had obtained for their own use and to support their children's schoolwork. Notably, Jasmine's father had installed software to prevent her and her sister from downloading any files from illegal file sharing sites. On Luke's part, he had found it difficult to resist the urge to use the Internet and asked his father to install a password in the computer and to withhold the password from him during his school examinations.
Faza and Shahril had home computers but not Internet access as both their parents felt that that was the best way to prevent their children from using the Internet excessively. Faza used to have home Internet access but her parents terminated the subscription when they caught her brother spending too much time and money on online soccer betting. Instead, she accessed the Internet at school or at the public library. Not surprisingly, she found public Internet access inconvenient and lacking in privacy compared to home Internet access. Consequently, she had repeatedly asked her parents to resume their Internet subscription but with no success. Be that as it may, public Internet access did offer her the benefit of technical assistance from the staff at these locations whenever she encountered difficulties. As for Shahril, he used the Internet at school most of the time and occasionally at his married brother's home, and was generally satisfied with these two sources.
All four informants in this age group had personal mobile phones and text messaging was the modal activity for all of them. Mobile phone use was significantly higher for preuniversity students Luke and Shahril, at 41 and 33 hours, than for secondary school students Jasmine and Faza, at 3 and 2 hours respectively. For Luke and Shahril, their social lives revolved around the mobile phone as exchanging text messages was the primary way in which they kept in touch with their friends. As the preuniversity students were older, they had more personal autonomy and the mobile phone was a key tool in the management of their social lives.
Tertiary level students
Of this group, all of whom were university students, Harry and Qi Ren had home Internet access but not Chien Hau and Xuefen. While Chien Hau relied on Internet access in school or at his aunt's and friends' homes, Xuefen used her laptop to access free Wi-Fi in school, at the community centre or at other public places such as cafes. Chien Hau had considered getting home Internet access but was always deterred by the cost and the fact that he could easily use the Internet at his aunt's apartment downstairs, or at the home of a friend who also lived close by. Internet use for this age group was devoid of parental regulations of any sort, except for Chien Hau whose mother was not prepared to help him pay for home Internet access.
The informants in this age group also used the Internet for schoolwork (researching and submitting assignments), entertainment (watching online videos and Internet television), and communicating with friends (through e-mail, blogging, and social networking sites such as Friendster). Although Harry and Qi Ren had home Internet access, the combined number of hours in which Internet and computer use was noted was considerably higher for Xuefen at 36 hours, than for Harry and Qi Ren at 21 and 12 hours respectively. As for Chien Hau, Internet and computer use was reported for only 1 hour during the diary period. Xuefen's higher usage is likely to be due to the fact that she carried her laptop wherever she went and accessed free public Wi-Fi whenever and wherever she could. As with the previous age group, all four informants in this group had personal mobile phones and text messaging was also the modal activity.
Variations in access
As stated earlier, existing data indicates that home Internet access is the dominant means by which young Singaporeans access the Internet. Table 4 outlines the common types of Internet access available to young Singaporeans across the entire access spectrum, from within to outside of the home. For young Singaporeans without home Internet access, this study's findings indicate that they rely on borrowed, school, public, and mobile dedicated access.
Table 4. Common types of Internet access available to Singaporeans within and outside of the home
|Within the home|
|Dedicated access||At home, via personally owned hardware and home broadband|
|Shared access||At home, via family-owned hardware which is shared with family members and home broadband|
|Outside of the home|
|Borrowed access||Via hardware and home broadband at the homes of friends or relatives|
|School access||Via hardware and broadband at schools|
|Commercial access||Via hardware and broadband at commercial venues such as LAN game centres and cybercafes|
|Public access||Via hardware and broadband at public venues such as libraries and community clubs|
|Mobile dedicated access||Via personally owned portable hardware such as laptops and PDAs, using free public Wi-Fi at public venues such as libraries, community centres, and malls|
The findings also suggest reasons for the adoption and nonadoption of home Internet access. For the six informants with home Internet access, their parents' primary motivation to get home Internet access in the first place was to support their children's education. Since adoption, the Internet had become more than a mere educational tool but was a mainstay in these informants' media repertoire, considered to be as essential as television and newspapers. As for informants without home Internet access, the reasons were more varied. Costs were a deterrent for all six informants, particularly when the lack of home Internet access could be easily compensated for through school, public, or borrowed channels. Within Singapore's dense urban landscape, Internet access outside of the home, whether public or borrowed, is never far away and easily available. Indeed, some informants felt that the level of Internet access that they already enjoyed, either through school, public sources, friends, or relatives was well able to meet their needs. Since they had not incorporated the Internet into their lives to a high degree, they felt that their intermittent access was sufficient and they managed to structure their lives around it. Take the example of Chien Hau :
[Why you don't have a computer or Internet access at home?]
“There are no urgent reasons why I should have one. During school days I can surf in school for my daily school work… during the school holidays, I can always go to my aunt's place or my friend's place. Should there be an urgent need I will just go to my aunt's place. Normally I just do work in school.”
Indeed, informants without home Internet access were highly attuned to the various options available to them. Those who frequented school and public facilities were well aware of the costs, time limits and hardware provisions at these locations. Xuefen, the only informant who did not have home Internet access but who relied upon free public Wi-Fi via her laptop was highly conscious of where and how best to tap into the free hotspots. Another reason for not having home Internet access was proffered by the parents of Charmaine and Faza. They felt that by not having home Internet access, they could safeguard against their children's exposure to unsavoury online content, excessive Internet use, and potential Internet addiction. Furthermore, public Internet sources were considered well-regulated and safe:
“…a lot of kids these days are addicted to the computer and from there they can learn a lot of negative things. Without a computer in the house, we have more control.” (Charmaine's father)
“…sometimes I observe that when you have the Internet, ‘unwanted’ programs just keep popping out. So out of curiosity, the children might click on the programs that pop out…like pornographic sites. If they go to the library to surf, it is all secured so I don't have to worry.” (Faza's mother)
In Faza's case, her family's prior negative experience with her brother's online soccer betting losses was added impetus for not acquiring home Internet access. While these Singaporean parents' concerns echo those of parents in other countries (e.g. Lenhart, Rainie, and Lewis, 2001; Livingstone, 2007), they also reflect societal concerns that are emerging in Singapore in light of the country's avid technology adoption, especially pertaining to Internet addiction (W. Tan, 2008) and online gambling (Nekmat & Lim, 2008).
Yet another reason for not getting home Internet access was the absence of an intrinsic motivation. While earlier studies have suggested that some young people do not adopt information technology because they consider it superfluous or irrelevant (Facer & Furlong, 2001), or lack an awareness of the benefits it brings (Livingstone & Helsper, 2007), the same cannot be said for this study's low users. Since information technology is so systematically built into the national curriculum, no Singaporean student can avoid using the Internet. However, apart from the extrinsic motivation of having to use the Internet for schoolwork, some informants had no intrinsic motivations for accessing the Internet. Hence, mandated use of the Internet did not necessarily encourage volitional use. As Buckingham (2007) argues, young people's media use outside of school tends to be dominated by their needs for communication and entertainment. For this study sample, this observation was especially true for the older informants at the preuniversity and tertiary levels, for whom peer relations were more salient. Regardless of whether the informants did or did not have home Internet access, the mobile phone was the primary platform used to communicate with their peers and the Internet played only a supplementary role in this regard. They exchanged text messages with their friends throughout the day on a daily basis, and only communicated with them via instant messaging or e-mail for the periods that they were online. For informants without home Internet access, their communication needs were effectively served by the mobile phone, and their entertainment needs were met by other media such as television, radio, and mp3 players. Consequently, these low users of the Internet had no intrinsic motivations for acquiring home Internet access or for using the Internet more intensively.
Degree of incorporation
The extent to which the informants incorporated the Internet into their lives mainly varied with the level and nature of Internet access available to them. The diary data shows that Internet use by those with home or mobile access used the Internet for significantly longer periods. They regarded the Internet as part and parcel of their lives and built it into their daily routines. They logged on from home at least once every other day, mainly to surf the Internet for information and entertainment, or to check e-mail and chat online with their friends. Amongst them, for the older informants from preuniversity level onwards, logging onto the Internet daily was a must. For some informants, especially those with laptop computers, ubiquitous internetting was clearly discernible because Internet access was widely and easily available through a multiplicity of sources, thus echoing the Dutch situation (Peter & Valkenburg, 2006). Notably though, some informants found the intensity and ubiquity of the Internet burdensome as we saw in the case of Luke who volitionally sought parental control. As also in the case of Qi Ren: “[Internet use] is detrimental to a certain extent…you have to spend a mandatory part of your time on the computer because it's so habitual, when you could have done maybe more productive things with your time. Although the Internet is a useful tool.” Such equivocal views suggest that while avid users have incorporated the Internet into their lives, preventing their lives from being dominated by it is a challenge. For informants without home Internet access, the relative ‘remoteness’ of the Internet in their lives led them to view it as more of an artefact than as a key lifestyle component. They only logged onto the Internet when schoolwork required it of them and their use was by no means habitual: “I use the Internet connection in my school computer lab or at the library…I don't use it often. I use it only whenever I need it” (Faza, media-have-less, 13). They had to make a concerted effort to use the Internet, planning in advance where and when to access it, or learning to structure their schedules around such access.
Some lifestage trends could also be noted. Internet use constituted a larger proportion of older informants' media use than of younger informants,’ consistent with studies in other countries (e.g. Foehr, 2006; Livingstone & Helsper, 2007; Devis-Devis, Peiro-Velert, Beltran-Carrillo & Tomas, 2008). Internet-based social interaction, complemented by mobile phone communication, was clearly more salient for the secondary/preuniversity and tertiary level respondents as these age groups had more autonomy over their social lives and media use. The Internet was also more heavily used in school assignments at secondary/preuniversity and tertiary levels.
Quality of Internet experience
The relationship between the level of access and the quality of Internet experience was not clear-cut as each type of access had its relative benefits and shortcomings. In terms of the quality of hardware and broadband services, home is not always superior as studies in other countries (e.g. Mumtaz, 2001; Sutherland, Facer, Furlong, & Furlong, 2000) have suggested. In view of the considerable investment by the Singapore government in IT use in education, the reverse appears to be true for informants such as Chien Hau:
“They have all the facilities there. The computers are connected to the printer in school. There's ease of access to computer programmes. In school we have all the accounting software and Microsoft visual software which a regular computer or home PC would not have.”
However, home access was superior in that informants who used borrowed, school or public access complained about how had little control over hardware and network settings. When using borrowed access, they were unable to customise the devices according to their own preferences, e.g. they could not save ‘favourites’ easily or set the homepage to one which they preferred. As each device has different system settings, which were determined by their owners/managers, such informants had to re-orientate themselves each time they used a different computer.
In terms of autonomy of use, informants without home Internet access were especially concerned about the lack of privacy of public and school access, given the constant presence of other users and the knowledge that they were using shared computers, thus resonating with Hassani (2006). Admittedly, home Internet users whose parents install software to monitor their children's Internet use would also be denied their privacy but none of the informants mentioned being subjected to this. As for restrictions on use, although borrowed, public and school access is either free or extremely affordable, they invariably come with time constraints. Typically, schools, community centres, and libraries impose time limits (usually of 1 or 2 hours) to prevent computer access from being monopolised by a few users. Similarly, when accessing borrowed Internet access, some informants shared that they would only go online for a limited time period before feeling obliged to leave and to “surrender” access to the rightful owner. The installation of firewalls and the blocking of particular services such as online chat also constrained the users of public and school access.
On the issue of social support, the situation varied even amongst those with home Internet access. Those with technically adept siblings or parents recounted informal, spontaneous learning by observing their family members while those without such support at home engaged in self-instruction through online sources or by tapping into their peer network. Informants who used borrowed sources could seek help from their hosts and those using public Internet sources referred to the trained professionals on hand. For some informants, school and public access offered a level of support which they would not have enjoyed at home, even if they had home Internet access, because neither their parents nor siblings were Internet-literate.
What then are the implications of these variations in Internet access amongst young Singaporeans for the development of their digital skills? Regardless of the types of Internet access, all the informants in this study had basic exposure to the Internet in terms of browsing websites. The situation facing young Singaporeans is that given the state's emphasis on the use of IT in the schools, and the government's systematic control over the education system, all Singaporean students will have basic exposure to the Internet. However, beyond basic exposure, the findings suggest that those with home Internet access had online skills of greater breadth and depth, although not of significantly greater breadth for the two older groups. They used the Internet more often and for longer durations, thus having more opportunities to explore the online environment as well as to sustain their online activities over a period, thereby developing the depth of their online skills. For example, while Faza had started a blog, she no longer maintained it due to her intermittent access and her skills had therefore plateaued, unlike Harry who continued to blog regularly from home. It should however be noted that home Internet access did not always necessarily translate into greater exploration, particularly if parental restrictions on Internet use were tight. For example, of the six informants with home Internet access, Jasmine had the poorest skills set because her father had installed software to prevent her from downloading materials and she also had to seek his permission before visiting particular sites. This finding resonates with Livingstone and Bober's (2005) observation that parental restrictions on children's Internet use constrain their learning experiences, as opposed to supportive guidance which can increase the children's online opportunities and heighten their online skills.
At the same time, despite the apparent ease with which those without home Internet access could secure access through other means, the findings suggest that their Internet use is of a goal-oriented nature rather than of free exploration, as is consistent with prior research (e.g. Kuhlermeier & Hemker, 2007; Facer and Furlong.) The following excerpts from Darren's and Viswa's diaries and interviews illustrate this point. Darren accessed the Internet at home, just before bedtime on a weekday night, primarily to complete a school project:
|Tuesday, 31 July 9.00–10.00 pm, Home - bedroom||Used Powerpoint software, browsed websites, checked email and chatted on instant messaging||[What were you doing on the computer (on Tuesday night)?]|
| || ||I was typing something out for my school presentation.|
| || ||[You were also browsing web pages?]|
| || ||To check for information. About the (presentation) topic.|
| || ||[I noticed that you have an e-mail address. Who do you use it to communicate with?]|
| || ||My friends.|
| || ||[So you communicate with your friends through e-mail?]|
| || ||And MSN.|
| || ||[You checked e-mail too. Did you receive any interesting e-mails from your friends on Tuesday night?]|
| || ||Forwarded mail. Like jokes and riddles.|
| || ||[Did it distract you from doing your projects?]|
| || ||No. I read them very quickly.|
| || ||…|
| || ||[Tell me more about your MSN. How many people were you communicating with?]|
| || ||1 or 2.|
| || ||[What were you communicating about?]|
| || ||School. The teacher being cranky. The Chinese teacher…I talked (on MSN) until I had to go to sleep.|
Viswa had gone to his aunt's home over the weekend for the express purpose of doing his online homework. After completing his homework, he proceeded to play online games and did not engage in any other activities online nor multitask online:
|Sunday, 5 August||Used e-learning portal, played online games||[What were you doing on the computer (on Sunday afternoon)?]|
|2.00–5.00 pm, Aunt's Home|| ||I went to do my school project on lead.com.sg on my aunt's computer. Then I played games.|
| || ||[Who do you usually go with to your aunt's house?]|
| || ||By myself. My mother doesn't accompany me.|
| || ||[How did you find these online games?]|
| || ||I just go to the website, then I click on the game and it will appear.|
| || ||[How did you find out about this website?]|
| || ||I saw on TV (advertisement) that there's cartoonnetwork.com, so I tried it.|
| || ||…|
| || ||[How do you divide your time and attention between different online activities?]|
| || ||I will split my time. Like in school they will give us 3 hours to finish my project. I will finish using lead.com.sg in 1 and a half hours and have another 1 and a half hours to finish my game.|
Unlike Darren who had convenient access which he could use at leisure, the limited nature of Viswa's Internet access seemed to lead to goal-oriented use that centred on one or two activities that were performed in succession rather than simultaneously. Consequently, unlike Darren for whom online multitasking was habitual, Viswa had limited opportunities to hone his multitasking skills. Be that as it may, while some informants with home Internet access appeared confident about multitasking “…there are times when you do certain things where you cannot have your attention divided, then you don't multitask…but as long as you keep your (online desktop) layout organised, it's fine” (Qi Ren), others were doubtful about their ability to multitask effectively: “What I dislike is that you lose concentration on everything, and sometimes you write the wrong thing to the wrong person” (Harry). It would appear therefore that even among avid Internet users, online multitasking is not without its challenges.
This paper has studied uneven Internet access in a setting where broadband Internet is affordable and pervasive, and where for young people, exposure to the Internet is relatively even given its systematic incorporation into the national education system. In the process, it has explored how the relative parity in school access interacts with the disparities in home access by studying young Singaporeans across the Internet access spectrum. The study finds different implications for different types of Internet access, including home, school, borrowed, public, and mobile sources. For those with home or mobile access, Internet use was routinised and often intense, to the point of being challenging for users who found the constant access burdensome and distracting. As IT use intensifies in Singapore, young people's ability to manage its growing presence in their lives is an issue that will require more attention. For those with borrowed or public access, intermittent use appeared to be adequate for their needs but hampered their ability to hone their Internet proficiency to the levels possessed by their peers. This is a cause for concern, particularly in a society like Singapore where IT is heavily deployed in the classroom and the workplace and the depth of one's digital skills can have significant impact on one's social advancement. The study also finds that although the heavy use of IT in education can encourage parity in basic exposure to online skills, developing depth and sophistication in online skills is more likely with home Internet access that is free from temporal, navigational, and content restrictions. In view of the fact that Singaporean students of all age groups are required to use the Internet for school work, a pressing issue for future investigation is whether and how home Internet access is associated with academic performance. In this regard, the study also found that besides cost considerations, several factors contribute to the nonadoption of home Internet access. These include the easy availability of public and borrowed access, parental concerns about the dangers of the Internet especially with regard to harmful or excessive use, and the widespread use of the mobile phone. On this last point, the mobile phone's ability to serve the communication and socialising needs of young Singaporeans relegates the Internet to playing only a supplementary role in this regard, thereby disincentivising greater Internet use. Given the worldwide growth of mobile phone adoption to levels exceeding Internet adoption, particularly in Asia (Jittapong & Therdthammakun, 2008), future research needs to consider the implications which mobile phone adoption will have on Internet adoption, e.g. will a closing of the mobile phone divide contribute to a widening of the Internet usage divide, or will the introduction of smart phones with Internet access give rise to new Internet usage patterns?
There are several limitations to this study which future research by this author will seek to overcome. First, while the media diaries yielded data on the nature and quantity of media use, they were unable to capture trends in young people's engagement with the media content per se. With regard to understanding Internet skills, a greater appreciation of the actual sites which young people with different types of Internet access were visiting, and their competencies in navigating sites of varying genres, perhaps through observational studies, would be ideal. Second, the study could have involved parents to a greater extent. While the original design had opted to obtain only the views of young people, the few occasions on which parental clarifications were sought provided valuable insights, suggesting that a more complete picture can be achieved with the involvement of parents, teachers, and also technical support staff at school and public access venues. Third, the study did not include nonusers but focused on students, all of whom need to use the Internet to some extent. Future studies should include students who have dropped out of school and have consequently also discontinued Internet use. Finally, this study captures a mere moment in time in a setting where technology use is rampant and the accompanying changes rapid. For example, more attention could have been paid to young people who use mobile Internet via free public Wi-Fi, a trend which emerged towards the close of the fieldwork and which is likely to intensify with the growing adoption of highly affordable ultramobile PCs in Singapore (Chai, 2009). Longitudinal studies are thus required to track this fast-paced phenomenon.
For one pair of tertiary students, Harry (male) was paired with Xuefen (female) as no male respondent meeting our selection criteria could be recruited in time for the data gathering period.
It should also be noted that differences in Internet connection speeds could not be used as a selection criterion as dial-up Internet access is at a negligible 2.4% of the population (IDA, June 2008)
Appendix A–sample page from media diary
|1. Printed matter||1a 1b 1c||1a 1b 1c||1a 1b 1c|
| a. Books|| || || |
| b. Magazines||1d _____||1d _____||1d _____|
| c. Newspapers|| || || |
| d. Others (specify)||2a _____||2a _____||2a _____|
|2. Radio (specify channel)|| || || |
| a. Free-to-air radio||2b _____||2b _____||2b _____|
| b. Internet radio|| || || |
|3. Television (specify channel)||3a _____||3a _____||3a _____|
| a. Free-to-air|| || || |
| b. Cable||3b _____||3b _____||3b _____|
| c. Internet|| || || |
| d. On mobile phone||3c _____||3c _____||3c _____|
| e. On TV Mobile screen (in bus, taxi etc.)|| || || |
|4. VCR/DVD player||3d 3e 4||3d 3e 4||3d 3e 4|
|5. Electronic game|| || || |
| a. Console game e.g. xBox/Playstation/Wii||5a 5b 5c 5d||5a 5b 5c 5d||5a 5b 5c 5d|
| b. Portable game e.g. Gameboy, Sony PSP|| || || |
| c. Online game e.g. MMORPG||6 7a 7b 7c 7d||6 7a 7b 7c 7d||6 7a 7b 7c 7d|
| d. Cable television game, e.g. PlayinI TV|| || || |
|6. Computer non -Internet based application, e.g. Microsoft Word, Powerpoint||7e 7f||7e 7f||7e 7f|
|7. Computer: Internet based application||7g _____||7g _____||7g _____|
| a. Browsing web pages|| || || |
| b. Uploading text/audio/ video files||8||8||8|
| c. Checking email|| || || |
| d. Instant messaging||9a 9b 9c 9d||9a 9b 9c 9d||9a 9b 9c 9d|
| e. Writing own blog|| || || |
| f. Participating in chat room/discussion forum||9e 9f||9e 9f||9e 9f|
| g. Other Internet based application (specify)|| || || |
|8. MP3 player||9g _____||9g _____||9g _____|
|9. Mobile phone/PDA|| || || |
| a. SMS||10||10||10|
| b. Voice call|| || || |
| c. Phototaking||11 _____||11 _____||11 _____|
| d. Video recording|| || || |
| e. Game|| || || |
| f. Internet access|| || || |
| g. Other mobile phone application (specify)|| || || |
|10. Home/office/public phone|| || || |
|11. Other media (specify)|| || || |
|Where were you?||Choose as many as you need|
|1. My workplace/school||1 2 3 4||1 2 3 4||1 2 3 4|
|2. My bedroom|| || || |
|3. My living room||4 _____||4 _____||4 _____|
|4. Another room at home (specify)|| || || |
|5. Car or bus or MRT||5||5||5|
|6. Somewhere else (specify)|| || || |
|1. I was mainly alone||1 2 3 4||1 2 3 4||1 2 3 4|
|2. Grandparent(s)|| || || |
|3. Parent(s)||5 6 7 8||5 6 7 8||5 6 7 8|
|4. Husband/Wife|| || || |
|5. Sibling(s)||9 _____||9 _____||9 _____|
|6. Friend(s)|| || || |
|7. Colleague/business contact(s)|| || || |
|8. Classmate(s)|| || || |
|9. Someone else (specify)|| || || |
|Were your companions sharing in your media use?||If yes, please specify which media|
|Any notable events relating to your media use?||Please state briefly|
|e.g. saw, learnt or experienced something new on radio, TV or the Internet, encountered difficulties retrieving information from mobile phone or Internet, had your plans change because someone contacted you on your mobile|| || || |
About the Author
Sun Sun LIM (PhD, LSE) is Assistant Professor at the Communications and New Media Programme, National University of Singapore. She studies the social implications of technology domestication by young people and families. She has conducted extensive fieldwork in Asia including in China, Japan, Singapore, and South Korea. She has articles published and forthcoming in New Media & Society, Communications of the ACM, and East Asian Science, Technology and Society.
Address: Communications and New Media Programme, National University of Singapore, AS3, 3 Arts Link, #04–15, Singapore 117570.