Lockdown drives UK internet and videoconferencing surge

UK adults now spend more than a quarter of their waking day online with services such as Zoom seeing unprecedented growth, according to Ofcom’s latest study of the nation’s online lives

With the UK slowly emerging from lockdown, the time that millions of people have spent at home working and being educated has led to record levels of internet use and huge changes in the way people communicate, says research from telecoms regulator Ofcom.

Ofcom’s annual Online Nation report – an in-depth study of how people use the internet – has revealed that at the height of the lockdown, UK adults spent a daily average of four hours and two minutes online, up from just under three and a half hours last September. Also, the proportion of UK online adults making video calls at least weekly doubled during lockdown, from 35% to 71%.

Ofcom found that before the Covid-19 pandemic, many people were already 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%), such as WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger, than were using SMS (41%) or email (26%). Daily use of online voice calls (31%) was only slightly lower than mobile calls (38%).

Yet the pandemic appears to have accelerated the adoption of online services to keep in touch with friends and family. The Ofcom report found that more than seven in 10 online adults in the UK are now making video calls at least weekly, up from 35% pre-lockdown. This trend was particularly noticeable among older internet users: the proportion of online adults aged 65 and over who make at least one video call a week increased from 22% in February 2020 to 61% in May 2020.

As regards the proportion of UK adults who used established online services to make video calls at least weekly during lockdown, WhatsApp reached 49% in May (up from 20% in February), Facebook Messenger 41% (up from 18%) and FaceTime 30% (up from 13%).

Reflecting the massive uptick in revenue that the videoconferencing service has seen in the first quarter of 2020, Zoom was found to have racked up 13 million adult internet users in April after having only 659,000 in January. Group video service Houseparty grew its user base over the same period from 175,000 to 4 million.

Video-sharing sites and apps have also surged in popularity. TikTok, for example, saw 12.9 million UK adult visitors in April, up from 5.4 million in January, and Microsoft Teams more than doubled in size to amass 6.5 million users.

Assessing what the research hs fond and what this means for theUK going forward, Yih-Choung Teh, Ofcom’s director of strategy and research, said: “Lockdown may leave a lasting digital legacy. 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 are safe and protected.”

And while this rush to online in the domestic arena seems to be continuing unabated, digital well-being ought to be top of mind as people work from home cautioned Adrian Baschnonga, global lead telecommunications analyst, EY. “The rapid shift to home working is troubling for many; 34% of households are struggling to maintain their work/life balance while working from home during the crisis period – and this rises to nearly half of households with two or more children,” he observed.

“Meanwhile a quarter of households say poor broadband performance is making home working difficult for them, and this issue is much more pronounced among younger households. While we are seeing less anxiety around screen time in recent months, there are signs that the increase in home working is creating its own well-being challenges.”

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