WASHINGTON -- America is seeing a dramatic increase in the number of homes wired to the Internet, Census figures show, as the demand grows for quicker communication -- from shopping to e-mail to instant messaging.
About 42 percent of all U.S. households could log on to the Web in 2000, up from 18 percent three years earlier, according to the Census Bureau report released Thursday.
People shop, check stock quotes and do research online. But it is the desire for fast communication that have made Internet access a "must-have" item for many people, said Susannah Fox, research director for the Pew Internet and American Life Project.
"E-mailing and instant messaging ... have been woven into Americans' social lives," said Fox, whose group tracks Internet usage and habits.
Nearly one-third of all adults 18 and older and one-fifth of all kids 3 to 17 use e-mail, the census survey found.
More children than ever before are growing up in homes with computers, the census report said. Nearly two-thirds of all kids between ages 3 and 17 lived in homes with computers, and nearly one-third of kids in that age range have gone online.
"Having a computer is no longer an oddity," said bureau analyst Eric Newburger.
Over half of the country's 105 million households had computers, the first time that percentage has been over 50 percent since the bureau started keeping track of such figures in 1984. Computers were in 8 percent of households that year.
Gaps still existed among different socioeconomic groups. Older Americans and families with smaller incomes were less likely to have computers.
Among children, however, discrepancies were erased by the availability of computers in most schools. Nearly 90 percent of all school-age kids -- age 6 to 17 -- had access to computers either at home or at school.
Many school districts are going further. At River Hill High School in Clarksville, Md., some ninth-graders were given handheld devices to use for schoolwork on a test basis.
Teachers use the devices to solicit responses from everyone in a classroom during discussion, instead of only the familiar few who raise their hands, River Hill principal Scott Pfeifer said.
"When every kid has access to a device and it is portable like this, then there is this every-pupil response that occurs," he said. "Then it truly become a tool that every kid has to learn."
Among those with Internet access at home, 73 percent of kids age 3 to 17, and 88 percent of adults 18 and older, used it for e-mail.
Among children, the next most popular use was for school research (68 percent), followed by more generic information searches (33 percent) and news, weather or sports (20 percent).
Among adults, 64 percent used the Internet for information searches, and 53 percent to get news, weather or sports updates. Forty percent used it to shop or pay bills.
According to the Consumer Electronics Association, the average retail price for a personal computer today is about $950, down from $1,450 in 1997.
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