About 61% find the Net "very" or "extremely" important as an information source, concludes the third annual nationwide survey on the Internet being released Friday from the University of California at Los Angeles.
That's roughly the same as the importance Net users place in books and newspapers. By comparison, just half of them find television important, and 40% think that of radio and 29% of magazines.
"It's open 24 hours a day. You can look up what you want," said Julie Von Haase, 31, an executive assistant in San Francisco. "With television you can only look up what they happen to be reporting."
The survey of 2,000 households also found Internet users are spending more time online than before and watching less television than nonusers.
Overall, Internet users are averaging 11 hours per week online, up more than an hour from a year earlier.
"It's how we pay our bills," said San Francisco teacher Heather Harrell, 35. "It's how we purchased or actually found an apartment. Overall, it's just time saving."
However, only 53% of users believe most or all of what they read online, down from 58% a year earlier, according to the survey. Nearly a quarter of those concerned about using credit cards online say nothing can ease their fears.
Last week, the Federal Trade Commission said complaints about identity theft doubled last year, with victims reporting hijacked credit cards, drained bank accounts and tarnished reputations.
"I don't think anyone wants to see this medium become the equivalent of advertising, where people take everything they see with a grain of salt," said Beau Brendler, director of the nonprofit Consumer WebWatch online credibility project.
The increased skepticism is healthy and suggests people "getting burned" are learning they haven't been trained to assess the credibility of online sources, said Jeff Cole, director of the UCLA Center for Communication Policy.
Cole's center conducted the telephone survey in English and Spanish from April to June and included follow-up interviews with respondents to previous UCLA Internet studies. The study has a margin of sampling error of plus or minus 3 percentage points.
Other findings include:
-- Among the most experienced users -- online at least six years -- 73% found the Internet important, exceeding the 67% for books and 57% for newspapers.
-- Newcomers with less than a year of experience consider books, newspapers and television more important than the Internet.
-- Nearly 30% of Americans do not use the Net, most commonly because they don't have a computer or one good enough. But nearly half the nonusers say they are likely to go online within a year.
-- Internet users averaged five hours less TV each week than nonusers. The Internet users watched 11 hours per week of TV, or one hour less than in 2001.
-- Some 37% of parents say they have punished their kids by denying them access to the Internet, while 46% withheld television as a similar punishment tool.