COVID-19 accelerated the UK’s shift to digital with adults spending an average of three hours 37 minutes online every day during 2020 – more than half an hour more than those in comparable countries in Europe, including Germany, France and Spain.
And in an unprecedented year, media regulator Ofcom said half the UK’s adult population watched online porn during the pandemic, with 20 million people viewing adult material in September last year.
Ofcom’s Online Nation report said because of the pandemic, communications, entertainment, culture, retail work and education all made a giant shift to online.
As high street shops closed, online shopping sales rose by 48% to almost £113 billion last year.
The biggest increase in sales came with online food and drink retail stores registering the biggest rise in sales – up by 82% year-on-year.
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Sales of household goods rose by 76% as many people, stuck at home during the various lockdowns, satisfied their growing interest in home improvements.
The purchasing power of youngsters also grew, helped along by digital pocket money apps and pre-paid debit cards.
Many people were glued to their phones in 2020, said Ofcom. Mobile apps cost people nearly £2.45bn with the majority going on dating app Tinder, along with Disney, YouTube and Netflix. The regulator said: “In September 2020, UK internet users spent nearly four times as much time on smartphones (an average of two hours 19 minutes a day) than they did on computers (37 minutes).
“With people at home for much of the year, online gaming saw a big increase in 2020. Nearly two-thirds (62%) of adults, and 92% 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.
“Games consoles and computers are widely used by young adults in particular, but smartphones are the most commonly used device across all age groups, and were used for gaming by 39% of all UK adults.”
Ofcom said TikTok grew rapidly from 3m adult visitors in September 2019 to 14m by March 2021, with the biggest increase in daily use among young adults – 18 to 24-year-olds more than doubled the time they spent on it, from 17mins to 38mins in September 2020.
In the same age group, Tinder remained the most popular dating app with 11% visiting the site in September 2020, while adults between 45 and 54 preferred Plenty of Fish (POF).
However, the year saw an increase in romance scams across all dating sites, with money lost to fraudsters hitting £18.5m – a 12% rise.
Almost half (49%) of adults visited an adult website or app in September 2020, with a third of online adults visiting the largest, Pornhub. Nearly two-thirds of children were said to be using social media by the age of 11, but more than half of those aged between 12 and 15 reported having a negative experience online.
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Almost a third reported someone they did not know trying to befriend them online, while a significant minority said they had seen something scary or troubling, or content of a sexual nature that made them feel uncomfortable.
Nine in ten of those aged from eight to 15 said social media had helped them through the pandemic by keeping them connected to their friends.
Fake or misleading online news about coronavirus was reported by 46% of adults, but Ofcom said many social media and video platforms had acted to combat false information.
Actions taken included, “raising the profile of authoritative information sources, removing content that is false and flagging content that might be untrue”.
Ofcom’s 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.”