Collateral benefits of Internet use: Explaining the diverse outcomes of engaging with the Internet

by Alexander van Deursen

Recently we studied the extent to which economic, cultural, social, and personal types of engagement with the Internet result in “collateral benefits.” That is, whether use of the Internet for economic, cultural, social, or personal domain activities could lead to positive outcomes in domains other than the one the use was located in. In addition, it examined the extent to which digital divide predictors relate to these outcomes after accounting for Internet skills and types of engagement. The findings suggest that what people do online and the skills they have are more important than who they are when it comes to inequalities in outcomes of Internet use and that Internet uses in a particular domain can result in outcomes in another domain. Especially interesting is that personal and social uses of the Internet have the most collateral benefits. These types of Internet use are often assumed to be less capital enhancing. We found that the economic uses, often the focus of digital inclusion policies and interventions, are narrowly related to mainly economic outcomes. While Bourdieu might have seen economic capital as the underlying fuel to give people access to other resources, this study seems to suggest that economic digital capital is less important to give people access to other resources than the more popular uses of the Internet. In other words, digital inequalities research needs to adopt a semiologic rather than an economistic approach if it wants to explain how use might lead to the acquisition of different capitals. This conclusion is important for effective digital divide policy and intervention development. A shift in emphasis away from the more functional, practical normatively valued types of engagement is desirable. Instead, other more popular, less normatively valued activities to improve overall wellbeing should be a part of programs and policies interested in increasing overall wellbeing and participation in digital societies. If policy or research continues to focus very narrowly on specific outcomes, researchers and policy-makers can assume that engagement with related uses is the best way of achieving these.

However, even when taking a narrow approach to digital exclusion, softer communicative and creative and more technical information navigation Internet skills are fundamental in translating engagement into the achievement of high-quality outcomes. Other research has shown that there are considerable inequalities in these skills between different socio-demographic groups. Information navigation skills have an impact on the more functional types of outcomes but fail to influence the more normatively valued and affective outcomes. In the latter, the softer social skills play a more important role. Interventions should carefully look at which skills individuals from different disadvantaged backgrounds are lacking and provide training in these to counter the amplification of existing inequalities. This study furthermore points out that there seems to be a trend that those with high levels of creative skills have a high quantity, but lower quality outcomes. This suggests that people are just producing content without knowing how to target it or without getting the result they would like in a variety of domains. The opposite occurs for social skills, where there is no effect or a negative effect on the quantity of social and cultural outcomes, but a positive effect on the quality of the outcomes achieved. Those with higher levels of social skills seem to aim at narrower ranges of relationships and engagements but with higher quality outcomes. Operational skills, the skills that are often central in interventions, are not directly related to achieving Internet outcomes. Other research suggests that they are the building blocks for other skills and should thus not be ignored. Nevertheless, the findings presented here suggest that operational skills are not sufficient and that potential headway in tackling inequalities can only be achieved if softer skills take center stage and programs are targeted at those groups that lack these in particular.

Read article published in Information, Communication and Society here.