INTERNET use is now deeply embedded in Australian culture, with most people seeing it as a prime source of information, an increasingly appealing source of entertainment and the place to turn for breaking news.

Most people are not yet engaged in creating their own websites, downloading podcasts or entering virtual worlds, but those who do are more likely to be young than old, and the majority of these young people will be using more than one media form at any given time.

This is the picture emerging from a major new study of Australians’ internet use conducted by the ARC Centre for Creative Innovation at Swinburne University that will be published this month.

The study, based on a telephone survey of 1000 people weighted by age, gender, location and income, is part of the World Internet Project.

It shows television’s long dominance as a popular form of media entertainment is under increasing threat from the internet.

The survey showed internet use was slicing into television viewing more deeply than the reading of newspapers, magazines or books.

This trend is more pronounced among those with broadband than those who use dial-up networking for their internet access, and most pronounced among those aged 18 to 29.

In this age group, 61% of those with access to broadband said they were watching less television today while only 3% said they were watching more.

The corresponding figures among older age groups showed that smaller proportions were watching less television, but not much smaller.

Among 30-49 year-olds with broadband, 43% reported they watched less television, and among those aged over 50-the traditional heartland of TV audiences – nearly a third said they watched less television.

The trend towards downloading television shows has also affected TV watching, with one-quarter of internet users saying they watch fewer shows on their television because they can download them. Only one in 10 said the ability to download meant they were watching more broadcast television.

It is true that, according to the survey, the proportion of internet users is highest among 18 to 24 year-olds (95%) and lowest among those aged over 64 (30%), but the figure among 50 to 64-year-olds is 66%, which is close to the 73% average across all age groups.

The proportion of people with broadband access who reported they were spending less time reading newspapers and magazines was lower: 30% among young people and 27% among 30-49 year olds.

Professor Julian Thomas, coauthor with Scott Ewing of the study, said the figures show the extent to which internet use now permeated society. ”Access to broadband is obviously a key driver of people’s use of the internet, but it is more than that,” he said.

”It is the growth of wireless networks and laptop computers and devices that enable material from the internet to be imported into your high definition television.”

”All these devices, and more, mean that the internet is shifting from being thought of as something primarily for people who are into technology to something you can just use.”

The importance of the internet in Australian life underscored the need for low-cost broadband, he said.

Australians now see the internet as both a reliable source of information and a ready source of entertainment.

Among those who use the internet, nearly seven in 10 say it has become an important or very important source of information.

In this context, said Professor Thomas, information included using government services, health, education, shopping and other forms of electronic commerce.

Comparing the quality of information across media forms, the survey found 41% of people thought most of the information in newspapers was reliable compared with 38% who said that of the internet, and 29% who said that of television.

The survey dealt with people’s perceptions, Professor Thomas said, beacuse it did not distinguish between material posted online by newspapers, television and radio outlets and other online material.

”The early analysis of the survey data shows the extent to which mainstream media companies are migrating their content online and the habit, that is becoming ingrained among people, of turning to the web for information, news and entertainment.”

Asked whether they would visit an online news service if a major international event was breaking, 62% of internet users said they would.

The corresponding figure for a breaking major local news event was 58%.

The survey also compared the entertainment value internet users placed on various media forms.

Here, 52% of internet users regarded television as important or very important, compared with radio (43%), the internet (32%) and newspapers (17%).

Internet users were asked whether they engaged in a range of online activities that required more than web surfing, including: – Posting messages on discussion boards: 23%.

– Instant messaging: 33%.
– Talking in chat rooms: 12%.
– Role-playing games, such as Second Life: 8%.
– Action games: 12%.
– Downloading or listening to music: 50%.
– Listening to a radio station: 27%.
– Watching video, whether TV shows, movies or clips: 30%.
– Downloading podcasts: 17%.
– Using file-sharing services like BitTorrent: 24%.

Professor Thomas said the survey data would yield more insight into internet use when analysed further, but it was already clear young people were more likely to be taking part in online activities. Nearly half of 18 to 29-year-olds with access to broadband post photos online compared to one in five 30 to 49-year-olds, he said.

Most of those surveyed (52%) said the internet had expanded their contact with family members, but not necessarily face-to-face contact.

Nearly one-third of internet users said they spent less faceto- face time with other members of their family.