Britons spent more time online on desktop, smartphones or tablets in 2020 compared other major European countries, new research has revealed.
Each person spent an average of three and a half hours online each day in 2020 – an hour longer than in Germany and France – as more people relied on the internet during lockdown, according to Ofcom’s annual study into the nation’s online habits.
Those aged 15 to 16 spent the most time online at 4 hours and 54 minutes each day with most having to study online, due to the pandemic.
With high street shops forced to close, the data also found UK online shopping sales rose by 48 per cent to nearly £113billion in 2020, up from £76.1billion the year before.
Britons were spending more time online than other European countries during the pandemic
The online share of retail spend increased from about 20 per cent in 2019 to 35 per cent in the spring lockdown and 30 per cent in December 2020.
Food and drinks retailers websites saw the biggest increase in sales – up 82 per cent on 2019 levels – as supermarkets expanded their online deliveries, and by December 2020, 11 per cent of UK grocery market sales were online, up from 5 per cent at the beginning of the year.
Online food delivery services also benefited from heavy increases in demand – Just Eat was the most popular, visited by nearly 10million people in December 2020 and reporting that its UK orders were 58 per cent higher in the last quarter of 2020 compared to the same period in 2019.
Household goods also surged by 76 per cent, due to heightened interest in home improvements.
However, some online shopping categories were negatively impacted in the early months of lockdown.
Although there were a fifth more online sales of clothing and footwear in February 2020 than in the previous year, sales in this segment in April were approximately £615million which is down 17 per cent compared to April 2019.
Recovery began in May when sales were up two per cent year on year, and in June and from September to the end of 2020 sales exceeded £1billion each month.
However, it’s not just adults who are splashing out with children’s online purchasing power growing, enabled by digital pocket money apps and pre-paid debit cards tailored for youngsters.
Since the spring 2020 lockdown, teenagers have also been spending more money online than offline with the trend continuing in 2021 with 68 per cent paying online compared to 32 per cent offline.
How the UK compares to other countries usage
The report found that internet users in the UK spend less time online than those in the US, but considerably more than those in France and Spain.
Internet use in the other countries examined also saw a marked increase in April 2020 as the full effects of the pandemic took hold.
The highest increase was in Spain, with the average time spent online per adult per day across computers, tablets and smartphones rising from 2 hours 47 minutes in January 2020 to 3 hours 56 minutes in April.
Some European countries, such as France and Germany, of comparable population and economy size to the UK have higher proportions of computer-only internet users and lower proportions of mobile-only users.
All countries saw spikes in daily use throughout the year, which can be attributed to the varying lockdown periods and the severity of the lockdown measures employed by governments over the course of the pandemic.
The UK spent more time online compared to other comparable European countries like France
Increase in video calling and online health services
Unsurprisingly, with people at home for much of the year, online gaming in the UK saw a big increase in 2020.
Some 62 per cent of adults and 92 per cent of 16 to 24 year olds said they played games on an electronic device and over half of all gamers agreed that gaming helped them get through lockdown.
Video calling also became an important way for people to keep in touch during the pandemic.
Zoom had very large growth from a few hundred thousand users in the first two months of 2020 to more than 13million in April and May.
It has since experienced some decline and was down to 10.4million users in March 2021, while platforms used primarily for work and education, such as Microsoft Teams, have shown a sustained increase in use at 13.7million users in March 2021, up by 5.3million year on year.
Online services were also a crucial way for people to find out information about the pandemic, and for governments to try to track and control the spread of the virus.
The NHS online service was used by 22.5million UK adults in March 2020 as the country entered lockdown.
Adult users of the NHS Covid-19 app in England and Wales peaked in October 2020 with 12.6million users – equivalent to 27 per cent of the population in England and Wales.
Video calling became an important way for people to keep in touch during the pandemic
Social sites used by 97% of adults
Social media continues to be widely used in many forms with video sites and apps used by 97 per cent of adult internet users and, perhaps surprisingly, 92 per cent of 3 to 4 year-olds.
Young adults are particularly heavy users of social video platforms, with those aged 18 to 24 spending an average of 1 hour 16 minutes per day on YouTube in September 2020 – an increase of 11 minutes since 2019.
Meanwhile, TikTok experienced huge growth during the pandemic – from three million UK adult visitors in September 2019 to 14 million by March 2021.
The video site also saw the biggest increase in daily use among young adults – with 18 to 24 year olds more than doubling their time spent on it in the year to September 2020 – up from 17 minutes to 38 minutes.
Despite most platforms setting their minimum user age at 13, 59 per cent of UK children use social media by the time they are 11. By age 15, usage increases to 95 per cent.
About nine in ten of those aged 8 to 15 say social media helped them feel closer to friends during the pandemic.
However, a similar proportion of teenagers say it prompts popularity pressures whilst 67 per cent of boys and 77 per cent of girls aged 7 to 16 agreeing that social media can cause worries about body image.
More than half of 12 to 15 year olds also reported having a negative experience online in 2020.
The most common experience, cited by 30 per cent, was someone they didn’t know attempting to befriend them online, which will no doubt be a concern to many parents.
The graph shows the average amount of time spent online for each age group in the UK
Dating sites increased in popularity
Meanwhile, Britons spent nearly £2.45billion on, and in, mobile apps across last year, with Tinder, Disney+, YouTube and Netflix topping the list.
In fact, Tinder was the most popular dating app among young online UK adults.
It was visited by 11 per cent of 18 to 24 year olds in September 2020 – while Plenty of Fish was most popular among the 45 to 54 age group.
Overall, around 12 per cent of Britons – equivalent to six million – and 22 per cent of those aged 15 to 34 said they used an online dating service before the spring lockdown in 2020.
However, unfortunately, lockdown saw an increase in romance scams, with money lost to fraudsters increasing by 12 per cent to £18.5million.
These scams can involve victims losing money via money transfers and buying fraudsters gift cards or high-value gifts.
There was also 20 per cent increase in bank transfers related to romance scams in 2020 compared to 2019, according to UK Finance.
Yih-Choung Teh, Ofcom’s group director of strategy and research, 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.’
The report included research produced by Ofcom and third-party providers which cover the following countries in addition to UK data: Australia, Brazil, China, Canada, France, Germany, India, Spain and the USA.
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