Internet as integral & essential

 A dark haired girl holds an Internet modem

First and foremost, we learned that being able to use the Internet at an affordable price and in a time, place and form that is accessible, is an integral and essential part of daily life for most of the New Zealanders we spoke to. This was the case even those who faced significant barriers accessing the Internet.

When we asked participants what they used the Internet for, one young person in Westport suggested “a better question might be, what don’t people use the Internet for?”  A woman with experience of family violence also responded to that question by asking, “what haven’t I used the Internet for?”

Participants of all ages in this research used the Internet as a core part of their social and family connection and communication. They also used the Internet for formal and information education including ongoing adult learning, entertainment, information and news, employment, shopping, banking and a myriad of official processes.

People used the Internet to file birth certificates and tax returns, to apply for jobs, income support benefits, study allowances and loans. The went online to search for jobs, and to find houses to rent. They did their banking online, paid fines and deposited bonds for their rental homes. They used the Internet to do research for school and university assignments, to email their teachers for extensions and then to submit those assignments when they were done.

People used online maps to find their way around, online reviews to choose which product to buy and online stores to buy music, books, shoes, clothes and all sorts of other things that they couldn’t find in their local stores.

Unsurprisingly, the people we heard from used social media a lot. They primarily used Facebook, Snapchat, Instagram and Twitter to connect, communicate and keep up with friends and family, in New Zealand and abroad. Internet-based calling services like Skype, Zoom or WhatsApp calling were used by our participants  to talk to friends and family, especially people overseas.

“[Skype] communication is good for people who are overseas, that you can just catch up with easily.” – Woman with experience of family violence, Manurewa

People also used social media to meet new people who shared their specific interests, to follow the news and to get inspiration for their creative passions and hobbies. They used online videos to entertain themselves and their children and to learn everything from New Zealand history to how to apply make-up. The played online games for fun and social connection.

A young man who experienced social anxiety said that being able to access the Internet meant he was able to remain socially connected during the times when he wasn’t able to leave his home and socialise in person. As a social worker in Westport explained:

“[The Internet is] huge for all of my clients, especially those … with social anxiety. They can still be socially connected within the community, and don’t have to leave home if they want to. They can still know what’s happening in the community and interact.” – Social worker, Westport

Young people with disabilities also described the Internet as being a critical technology to enable their full participation in social and public life. The same social worker in Westport also said that being able to connect digitally with her clients, especially those with disabilities, was essential.

“Disabilities, absolutely. We don’t have public transport. Sometimes it might be raining, I can send a message and they’ll get it right away, they don’t need to come in.” – Social worker, Westport

Young people in Kawerau talked about being able to meet and connect with other young people around the world who shared their particular interests. This provided them with a community in which to feel understood and encouraged in their specific pursuits in a way which may otherwise have been difficult in a small town.

This was also true of young people with disabilities, who used the Internet to connect with young people who had similar impairments to them, around New Zealand and around the world. For some people however, digital media presented particular challenges as a means to connect with people with whom they might have shared experiences.

“[T]here is a group of people who are autistic and blind, lots of them are non-verbal too,  scattered all over the country. Also a lot of us struggle with social media connections online. I’m fairly okay with it although I struggle with it from the vision point of view. Umm, but a lot of autistics are very bad at anything other than face-to-face communication even if they are verbal.” – Young person with vision impairment and Autism, Wellington

One advantage of digital technology, which only came up in the conversations with young people with disabilities, was the potential of smart home technology to make life easier for people with a mobility impairment.

“I hate coming home and it’s cold and the house is all dark. I try to unlock the door and it’s hard to do and you finally do it and you get inside and then try and close the thing and then find the light switch. … You can have smart light bulbs and because they are linked into your WiFi and your phone becomes like a master key thing. So when you come home and you come in range of your WiFi network and it recognises that it’s you. And it recognises that it’s night time, so the lights come on. Isn’t that cool!” – Young person with mobility impairment, Wellington