UK internet use and video calls soar during lockdown - Ofcom report

David Murphy

UK adults are spending more than a quarter of their waking day online – the highest on record – with services such as TikTok and Zoom seeing unprecedented growth, according to Ofcom’s latest study into the nation’s online lives.

Ofcom’s annual Online Nation report reveals that in April 2020, during the height of lockdown, UK adults spent a daily average of four hours and two minutes online – up from just under three and a half hours in September last year.

With people seeking new ways to keep connected, informed, entertained and fit during the pandemic, emerging video-sharing and video-calling services are surging in popularity.

TikTok reached 12.9m UK adult visitors in April, up from just 5.4m in January. Twitch, the live streaming gaming platform, saw visitors increase from 2.3m to 4.2m adults over the same period.

The proportion of UK online adults making video calls has also doubled during lockdown, with more than seven in 10 doing so at least weekly. Houseparty, the app which combines group video calls with games and quizzes, grew from 175,000 adult visitors in January to 4m in April. But the biggest growth was seen by Zoom, which grew from 659,000 UK
adults to 13m over the same period.

A nation of content creators
Sites and apps such as YouTube, Snapchat, Instagram and TikTok, which allow people to create, upload and share videos online, have never been so popular. The report reveals that nine in 10 online adults, and almost all older children aged 8-15, used at least one of these websites and apps in the last year, with many watching videos several times a day. One third (32 per cent) of online adults now spend more time viewing video-sharing services than broadcast television.

The report also reveals that people are not only watching, but also creating and broadcasting their own content. 40 per cent on adults and 59 per cent of older children who use video-sharing sites and apps now create and upload their own videos.

Vlogging is also a money-making enterprise, with 17 per cent of adults who create and upload videos receiving revenue or gifts in return. With some vloggers going on to achieve global celebrity status, the proportion of children under 13 who aspire to become a ‘YouTuber’ had increased by 19 per cent by the end of 2019 compared to 2018. Boys in particular are more likely to consider it as a career.

The study shows that, before the COVID-19 pandemic, many people were moving away from more established forms of communication – particularly landline calls and SMS text messages – and adopting newer methods.

In the 12 months to February 2020, substantially more online adults were sending daily text messages using a variety of online messaging platforms (52 per cent), such as WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger, than using SMS (41 per cent) or email (26 per cent). Daily use of online voice calls, at 31 per cent, was lower than mobile calls (38 per cent).

The pandemic appears to have accelerated the adoption of online services to keep in touch with friends and family. More than seven in 10 online adults in the UK are now making video calls at least weekly, up from 35 per cent pre-lockdown. This trend is particularly noticeable among older internet users; the proportion of online adults aged 65+ who make a least one video-call each week increased from 22 per cent in February 2020 to 61 per cent by May 2020.

For many adults and children, watching or creating content on video-sharing sites or apps is a positive experience. But 87 per cent of adults – and 79 per cent of 8-15 year olds – have concerns around children using these platforms. Bullying or trolling, harmful or age-inappropriate content and receiving private messages from strangers are among the top concerns.

Adults’ trust in sites to remove illegal, offensive and harmful material has grown by seven percentage points since last year, to 54 per cent. Nevertheless, most adults (57 per cent) continue to support greater regulation of video-sharing platforms (64 per cent in 2019).

Ofcom is preparing to take on new duties for the regulation of UK-based video-sharing platforms. This summer, it will publish a call for evidence to inform its guidance on the measures platforms should adopt to protect users from harmful content.

“Lockdown may leave a lasting digital legacy,” said Yih-Choung Teh, Ofcom’s Director of Strategy and Research. “The coronavirus has radically changed the way we live, work and communicate online, with millions of people using online video services for the first time. As the way we communicate evolves and people broaden their online horizons, our role is to help ensure that people have a positive experience, and that they’re safe and protected.”

Online Nation brings together research produced by Ofcom and third-party providers. The report includes new research conducted by Populus in 2020 on video-sharing platforms and online communication services. Third-party sources used include Comscore, the UKOM approved partner for online media audience measurement since 2012, and Kids Insights UK, a market research and insights resource on children aged 3-18 years old.

Karl Knights, Vice President, EMEA for marketing technology company 4C, said the report demonstrates how closed ecosystems like social media have become further intertwined in people’s lives during the pandemic and are now ‘essential items’ of sorts.

“COVID-19 has changed the way consumers communicate, which naturally means businesses and brands, too, have to be agile in their communications and build empathy with their audiences,” he said. “Using social media to take centre, closed ecosystems will play a key role in revitalising society as we embrace a ‘new normal’ – putting the ‘social’ into social distancing. As the report points out, sites and apps such as YouTube, Snapchat, Instagram and TikTok have never been so popular. However, expectations are higher now. Seeking more than mere engagement, people want transparency and authenticity built in to the experience that reflect their core values.”

He also expects time spent online to continue to grow. “With the Premier League back on and the absence of stadiums, pubs, or even other people’s homes to enjoy games together, fans will turn to their phones or tablets to recreate the shared experience,” he said. “In this context, brands who nail the format will reap the rewards, driving real-time conversation by syncing ads with the action on the pitch.”

Paul Wright, Managing Director, AppsFlyer for the UK, France, Middle East and Turkey, believes the surge in the use of mobile apps and online services provides a huge opportunity for brands to reach audiences.
“Our data shows that global in-app revenue has continued to rise during the pandemic, growing 36 per cent since mid-March – demonstrating the importance of recognising changes in consumer behaviour and focusing ad spend on current areas of engagement,” he said.

“It is important for brands to use this time to create a new relationship with consumers; one less focused on boosting immediate sales and more focused on building long-term loyalty. By supporting customers and engaging with them via mobile and apps that are providing entertainment, brands can gain positive mindshare for the future."

And Phil Sorsky, SVP, Service Providers for EMEA at CommScope, notes that connectivity has helped ease the pain of the transition to a new way of life for millions of people.

“From a FaceTime call with relatives to the new and shiny House Party app picking up traction among younger audiences, speedy and reliable broadband and wireless access is bridging the gap,” he said. “However, not all areas of the country have access to such reliable network coverage, and disparities in fibre rollout continue to leave some rural communities offline and excluded from the benefits the internet is bringing to the nation during these difficult times. It is critical that everyone across the country has the same access to these opportunities, and that rural ‘not-spots’ aren’t left further behind by the impact of lockdown.”