UK adults spent more time online across 2020 than their European counterparts, according to an Ofcom study.
Ofcom’s annual Online Nation report, which provides insights into the country’s internet habits, highlighted the unprecedented shift online in the wake of the pandemic.
During the onset of the pandemic, millions pivoted rapidly to remote working practices and began relying on digital platforms to shop, learn and keep in touch with loved ones.
This shift saw UK adults spend more than three and a half hours online each day during 2020 – more than an hour longer than adults in France and Germany, and 30 minutes longer than people in Spain.
Online shopping also skyrocketed following the onset of the pandemic, with Britain’s online shopping sales rising by nearly 50% to £113 billion.
Food and drink retailers saw the biggest increase in online sales, marking an 82% rise on 2019.
Additionally, online sales of household goods also surged by 76%, which Ofcom said was due to a “heightened interest in home improvements”.
“In an unprecedented year, we’ve seen a real acceleration in our migration to online services – which, for many people, have provided a lifeline in lockdown,” said Yih-Choung Teh, Ofcom’s group director of strategy and research.
“This research is critical to keep pace with these changes in technology, economics and behaviour, as we prepare to take on new responsibilities for regulating online safety.”
A life spent online
TikTok was one of the big winners of as it attracted new users across the globe. In Britain, the social media platform experienced significant growth, rising from three million adult visitors in September 2019 to 14 million by March this year.
Tinder remains the most popular dating app among young adults, while nearly half (49%) of UK adults visited an adult website or app in 2020.
Social media offered an outlet for millions to keep up to date and engage online over the past year, especially for children and young people.
Around nine-in-ten children aged between eight to 15 said social media helped them “feel closer to friends” during the pandemic.
However, the Ofcom report also highlighted concerning statistics with regard to mental wellbeing and safety online.
Despite most platforms setting their minimum user age at 13, more than half (59%) of UK children were found to use social media by the time they are 11. By age 15, this rises to 95% usage, Ofcom revealed.
The impact of social media on young people’s wellbeing was also highlighted in the report, with two-thirds of boys and more than three-quarters of girls aged seven to 16 stating that social media causes body image concerns.
Similarly, disturbing online experiences are also an issue which many young people are forced to contend with.
Over the past year, more than half of 12-to-15 year olds reported having a negative experience online.
“The most common experience, cited by almost a third, was someone they didn’t know attempting to befriend them online,” Ofcom said.
“A significant minority had seen something scary or troubling, or content of a sexual nature that made them uncomfortable.”
The coronavirus ‘infodemic’
Misinformation and fake news has been a recurring topic for the last several years, and in 2020 the situation escalated dramatically.
According to Ofcom, half of UK adults noted that staying informed and accessing news was a primary reason they went online. However, many revealed they encountered blatant misinformation.
Nearly half (46%) of UK adults seeking information on coronavirus revealed they had encountered false or misleading information.
“The coronavirus pandemic has resulted in an ‘infodemic’ – an overabundance of information, which includes the dissemination of inaccurate or misleading information,” the report states.
During the initial onset of the pandemic, Ofcom found that one of the most commonly-shared pieces of misinformation centred around face masks and their ability to protect people from the virus.
Social media is a key way in which which users access news and reliable sources, Ofcom said.
The regulator’s 2020 news consumption survey, conducted before the spring lockdown, found that 45% of UK adults used social media for news.
Of these, 76% said they access news via Facebook, and more than one-third (37%) accessed news from Twitter.
A growing digital divide?
While online platforms and services benefitted millions across the UK during the last year, Ofcom’s report highlighted growing concerns over the digital divide.
The pandemic and subsequent shift to online appears to have exacerbated the issue of social exclusion, with one-in-ten disadvantaged households having no internet access.
With services, education and retail activity shifting online, families across the country were isolated further. Education is an area of particular concern among young people and children, the report noted.
Although nearly all of Britain’s schoolchildren had access to the internet, just 4% were able to get online with a mobile phone. One-fifth of children also lacked access to appropriate devices through which they could do school work.
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Concerns over a growing digital divide since the onset of the pandemic were highlighted in a report last week from Citizens Advice.
Research conducted by the organisation warned that nearly 2.5 million people across the country are behind on broadband bills, with 700,000 people falling into debt as a result during the pandemic.
Data from Openreach found that UK internet use almost doubled across 2020, from an average of 22,000 petabytes per person in 2019 to 50,000 in 2020.
With much of the country online, Citizens Advice chief executive, Dame Clare Moriarty, said broadband should be viewed as an “essential” service such as gas or electricity, not a luxury.
“Lack of broadband creates yet another hurdle in the hunt for jobs, helping children with their schoolwork, and being able to access help, information and fill in forms online,” she said.
“Ofcom and the government must ensure everyone can afford their broadband, no matter which provider they are with. People shouldn’t be penalised simply because their provider isn’t one of the few firms that offers a cheaper tariff,” Moriarty added.