UK adults spent more time online than other large European countries such as France and Germany during the pandemic, according to Ofcom research.
They spent more than three-and-a-half hours (217 minutes) online each day in 2020 – more than an hour longer than in Germany and France and 30 minutes more than Spain, the regulator’s annual Online Nation report reveals.
Around half of UK adults – 49% or around 26 million – visited an adult website or app in September 2020. The largest, Pornhub, was visited by around a third of online adults (15 million) in September 2020, representing half of all UK men online, compared to 16% of UK online women.
Britons spent nearly £2.45 billion on and in mobile apps across last year – with Tinder, Disney+, YouTube and Netflix topping the list.
Online shopping sales rose by half (48%) to nearly £113 billion in 2020, with food and drinks retailers seeing the biggest increase in sales, up 82% on 2019, followed by household goods, up 76%.
The report shows children’s online buying power is also growing, enabled by digital pocket money apps and pre-paid debit cards.
Around one in eight adult Britons online (12% or six million) and more than one in five (22%) 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 to 24-year-olds in September 2020 – while Plenty of Fish was most popular among the 45-54 age group.
However lockdown saw an increase in romance scams, with money lost to fraudsters increasing by 12% to £18.5 million.
Social video sites and apps are now used by almost all UK adult internet users (97%), and by 92% of three to four-year-olds.
Young adults are particularly heavy users of social video platforms, with 18-24s spending an average of one hour 16 minutes per day on YouTube in September 2020 – an increase of 11 minutes since 2019.
TikTok in particular experienced “huge” growth during the pandemic, Ofcom found, from 3.5 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.
Despite most platforms setting their minimum user age at 13, nearly two-thirds (59%) of UK children use social media by the time they are 11. By age 15, use increases to 95%, the survey found.
About nine in 10 children aged eight to 15 said social media helped them feel closer to friends during the pandemic. But a similar proportion said it prompted popularity pressures. Two-thirds of boys (67%) and three-quarters of girls (77%) aged seven to 16 also agreed that social media could cause worries about body image.
More than half of 12 to 15-year-olds reported having a negative experience online in 2020. The most common experience, cited by 30%, was someone they did not know attempting to befriend them online.
A significant minority (18%) had seen something “scary or troubling”, or content of a sexual nature that made them uncomfortable (17%).
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.”
Andy Burrows, NSPCC head of child safety online policy, said: “This report makes it clear that for even the youngest children the online world is an integral part of their daily lives, but far too many are being exposed to harmful content and behaviour.
“And with two thirds of 11-year-olds using social media there’s even more evidence that companies are setting their own rules and not enforcing them.
“The Online Safety Bill can change this but must be more ambitious. Successful regulation must understand that as children switch from app to app, harm and abuse follow, and compel firms to work with each other to prevent risks that spread rapidly across platforms.”