UK adults spent more time online in 2020 than those in any other European country, with ecommerce rocketing by 48% to hit £113bn and online dating and porn both proving irresistible to lockdown Brits.
So says Ofcom’s Online Nation 2021, an annual study into the nation’s online habits, which looks at an unprecedented year, when communication, entertainment, culture, retail, work and education moved more online.
UK adults spent more than three and a half hours online each day in 2020 – more than an hour longer than those in Germany and France, and 30 minutes more than in Spain.
On average, UK adults aged 18+ spent three hours and 37 minutes online each day in 2020. Those aged 15-16 spent four hours 54 minutes, 13-14s spent three hours 48 minutes, 11-12s spent four hours 12 minutes, 9-10s spent three hours 12 minutes, and 7-8s spent two hours and 54 minutes.
We also spent more than an hour longer online than France (two hours 20 minutes) and Germany (two hours six minutes), and 30 minutes more than Spain (three hours and six minutes).
Brits also spent nearly £2.45bn on, and in, mobile apps across last year, with Tinder, Disney+, YouTube and Netflix topping the list.
With high street shops forced to close due to the coronavirus pandemic, UK online shopping sales went up by 48% to nearly £113bn in 2020. Food and drinks retailers’ online stores saw the biggest increase in sales, up by 82% on 2019, while sales of household goods also surged – by 76% – due to heightened interest in home improvements.
Children’s online purchasing power also grew, enabled by digital pocket money apps and pre-paid debit cards. Since the spring 2020 lockdown, teenagers have been spending more money online than offline, and this trend has continued into 2021, with 68% of spend online and 32% offline in March 2021.
Around one in eight online adult Brits and more than one in five of those aged 15-34 said they used an online dating service before the spring lockdown in 2020. Tinder was the most popular dating app among young online UK adults – visited by 11% of 18-24s in September 2020 – while Plenty of Fish was most popular among the 45-54 age group.
However, lockdown also saw an increase in romance scams, with money lost to fraudsters increasing by 12% to £18.5m.
Social video sites and apps are used by almost all UK adult internet users, and by more than nine in ten three – to four-year-olds. Young adults are particularly heavy users of social video platforms, with 18-24s spending an average of 1 hour 16 minutes per day on YouTube in September 2020 – an increase of 11 minutes since 2019.
TikTok experienced huge growth during the pandemic – from three million UK adult visitors in September 2019 to 14 million by March 2021. TikTok also saw the biggest increase in daily use among young adults – with 18-24s more than doubling their time spent on it in the year to September 2020 – up from 17 minutes to 38 minutes.
Around half (49%) of UK adults (around 26 million) visited an adult website or app in September 2020, which equates to 26 million unique adult visitors.
The largest, Pornhub, was visited by around a third of online adults (15 million) in September 2020, up by 1 million visitors since September 2019 – representing half of all UK online men, and 16% of UK online women.
According to Pornhub, the UK is the third highest source, by country, of traffic to the site. Pornhub’s average visit duration in the UK is 10 minutes 20 seconds.
Other findings shows that 50 years since the first email was sent, 88% of UK online adults use an email service, and, although messaging apps have become widespread, email is still widely used and is essential for many forms of online registration, including shopping sites.
Google Gmail was the most-used email service among adults in 2020, used by 61% of the UK online adult population. WhatsApp, owned by Facebook, is the most-used messaging service, with 75% of online over-15s saying they used it during the spring 2020 lockdown, ahead of Facebook Messenger (58%).
Facebook’s Instagram Direct Message was used by 24% of UK online adults. Of online over-15s, 83% (and 97% of 15-24s) said they used at least one Facebook-owned service at least monthly.
Of all the time spent online in 2020, more than a third was on Google or Facebook. Sites and apps owned by Google (including YouTube) and Facebook (including Instagram) commanded 39% of all the time spent online on computers, smartphones, and tablets.
There is then a further list of 18 sites and apps, headed by Spotify, Netflix and Bytedance (which includes TikTok), all of which were used by UK online adults for 22% of the average time spent online each day. The remaining 39% of time spent online is across a range of more than 180 million sites.
The dominance of Google and Facebook services is also evident in the use of mobile apps, with nine of the top ten most-used apps in the UK owned by one of the duo. There are some differences by device, which illustrates the power of the operating system. On Android, the top three apps are all owned by Google; on iOS the top two are both Facebook-owned, with three Apple apps appearing in the top ten.
Looking more broadly, Google, Amazon, Facebook, Apple and Microsoft were big beneficiaries of the increased use of online services in 2020. All five companies reported record revenue and profit in Q4 2020.
Despite most platforms having a minimum user age of 13, nearly two-thirds of UK children use social media by the time they are 11. By the age of 15, use increases to 95%.
About nine in ten older children (8-15s) say social media helped them feel closer to friends during the pandemic. But a similar proportion of teenagers say it prompts popularity pressures. Two-thirds of boys and three-quarters of girls aged seven to 16 also agree that social media can cause worries about body image.
More than half of 12-15s reported having a negative experience online in 2020. The most common experience, cited by almost a third, was someone they did not know attempting to befriend them online. A significant minority had seen something scary or troubling, or content of a sexual nature that made them uncomfortable.
Ofcom group director of strategy and research Yih-Choung Teh said: “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.
“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.”
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