Polls and surveys on who's using the World Wide Web and why seem to be multiplying in direct proportion to the Internet explosion - and older computer users are a major focus point.

A survey by Media Metrix SoftUsage says those Third Agers with personal computers spend almost a third more time using their home computers than "Generation-Xers," and those 45 years and older average more than 34 hours monthly in front of the screen.General manager Bruce Ryon says the figures directly contradict the perception that those in the Generation-X group are the only ones tuned in and turned on to computer usage. "As people advance in age, they advance in wisdom and knowledge," Ryon says. "The PC is necessarily becoming a tool to further advance that wisdom and knowledge in their careers as well as in retirement."

The survey shows that older baby boomers and retirees tend to use their PCs 31 percent more than those in the 18- to 34-year-old category. Those over 55 spend three times as much time with the computer as teenagers.

The Net boom also is changing the way Third Agers and others get their news, do their shopping and handle their investments. A Market Facts Inc. survey conducted for MSNBC says the World Wide Web has become the medium of choice for many of those keeping on top of the news, in many cases surpassing traditional sources such as newspapers, magazines and television.

MSNBC on the Internet's top editor says use of the Web to tune in on current events is now "similar to broadcast television in terms of weekday use, and is used more than cable television, newspapers and magazines during that same period of time"; on Saturdays, the Net "is used more than broadcast television, radio or newspapers, and on a weekly basis has nearly the same hours of use as newspapers."

According to survey data, currently 20.1 million Internet users report regularly using the Internet as a source for news - more than half (53 percent) of the U.S. Internet population (38 million), making the Internet a significant competitor among traditional news sources.

Shopping will never be the same. A Homefront survey by the Odyssey research firm says online retail buying is up 50 percent since the same time last year. Twenty-three percent of U.S. households are now online, up from 17 percent a year ago.

The research firm also reports that nearly 7 million households made a purchase online in the last six months of 1997, more than double the 3.2 million households that made online purchases in the last six months of 1996. And those who have shopped online from home have done so an average of 1.7 times in the last six months, up from 1.0 times one year ago.

Odyssey president Nick Donatiello says this dramatic rise in online shopping could signal a big change in the way business is conducted in America. "It's clear that 1997 was the year that millions of Americans tried buying something on the Internet, and most realized that nothing bad happened - their credit card wasn't stolen, their merchandise showed up and it was pretty easy, so they went back for more," he says.

And while Third Agers and others increasingly turn to the Web for investment news, advice and making direct stock trades, online banking is lagging, Donatiello says. Fifty-two percent have used the Net for investment purposes, but only 15 percent of online households are using the system to bank online, including accessing accounts, paying bills and transferring funds.

Bankers can learn from the investment community's online success, Donatiello says. "Discount brokers have figured out that if they pass some of the savings associated with online transactions to the consumer, they'll attract customers faster," he says. "Most banks and credit-card companies appear to lack this insight. In fact, some banks are foolish enough to think they can charge consumers extra for lowering the bank's transaction costs."

But when it comes to Web use nationwide, there are significant holdouts. A new study by Forrester Research says many Americans feel they just don't need a home computer. While 43 percent of the country's homes now have a PC, that figure will grow by only 7 percent by year's end.