Teenage girl at desk on computer

A nation’s online migration: Ofcom reveals a year lived online

Published: 29 June 2023
Last updated: 29 June 2023
  • UK adults spent more time online than other European countries during pandemic
  • In 2020 UK’s online shopping bill exceeded £110 billion for the first time
  • Half of UK adults visited an online adult site or app in 2020

UK adults spent more time online on desktop, smartphones or tablets in 2020 than comparable European countries, according to Ofcom’s annual study into the nation’s online habits.

Ofcom’s Online Nation 2021 report[1] delivers a snapshot of an unprecedented year, when communication, entertainment, culture, retail, work and education moved more online.

UK adults 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.[2]

On average, UK adults aged 18+ spent three hours and 37 minutes online each day in 2020. Those aged 15-16 spent four hours 54 minutes, 13-14s spent three hours 48 minutes, 11-12s spent four hours 12 minutes, 9-10s spent three hours 12 minutes, and 7-8s spent two hours and 54 minutes.
British adults spent nearly £2.45bn on, and in, mobile apps last year. We also spent more than an hour longer online than France (two hours 20 minutes) and Germany (two hours six minutes), and 30 minutes more than Spain (three hours and six minutes).

Brits also spent nearly £2.45bn on, and in, mobile apps across last year, with Tinder, Disney+, YouTube and Netflix topping the list.[3]

Shopping bill arrives

With high street shops forced to close, UK online shopping sales rose by half (+48%) to nearly £113 billion in 2020.[4] The online stores of food and drinks retailers saw the biggest increase in sales (+82% on 2019 levels), while household goods also surged, due to heightened interest in home improvements (+76%).[5]

Children’s online purchasing power is also growing, enabled by digital pocket money apps and pre-paid debit cards tailored for youngsters. Since the spring 2020 lockdown, teenagers have been spending more money online than offline, and this trend has continued into 2021 (68% online vs. 32% offline in March 2021).[6]

Swiping right

Around one in eight online adult Brits (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 18-24s in September 2020 – while Plenty of Fish was most popular among the 45-54 age group. Lockdown saw an increase in romance scams, with money lost to fraudsters increasing by 12% to £18.5m.

Social video

Social video sites and apps are used by almost all (97%) UK adult internet users, and by 92% of 3-4 year-olds. Young adults are particularly heavy users of social video platforms, with 18-24s spending an average of 1 hour 16 minutes per day on YouTube in September 2020 – an increase of 11 minutes since 2019.[7]

TikTok experienced huge growth during the pandemic – from 3 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).

Around half (49%) of UK adults (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 online men, compared to 16% of UK online women.[8]

Socially self-conscious

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%.

About nine in ten older children (8-15s) say social media helped them feel closer to friends during the pandemic. But a similar proportion of teenagers say it prompts popularity pressures. Two-thirds of boys (67%) and three-quarters of girls (77%) aged 7 to 16 also agree that social media can cause worries about body image.[9]

More than half of 12-15s reported having a negative experience online in 2020. The most common experience (cited by 30%) was someone they didn’t know attempting to befriend them online. A significant minority had seen something scary or troubling (18%), 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.”


  1. Online Nation brings together research produced by Ofcom and third-party providers; an overview of our methodology is published as an annex to this report. The report includes new research conducted by Yonder in 2020 on video-sharing platforms and online communication services. Third-party sources used include Comscore, which was the UKOM approved partner for online media audience measurement from 2012-2020, and The Insights Family UK, a market research and insights resource on children aged 3-18 years old. For the time spent online infographic above, the source for adult figures is from Comscore based on measured use on desktop and mobile while time spent by children is from CHILDWISE Monitor Report 2021 based on responses from children.
  2. UK adults also downloaded more apps during lockdown than our European counterparts – a daily average of 2.41 billion, compared with Germany (2.2 billion), France (2.15 billion), and Spain (1.46 billion).
  3. Spend on health and fitness apps grew by 70% in 2020, while language learning app, Duolingo, was the most popular education app – reaching 1.77 million UK adults at its peak last year. Multiplayer gaming app Among Us was also a lockdown phenomenon, with over 11 million downloads in the UK in the last four months of 2020.
  4. Online shopping accounted for just over a third (35%) of total retail spend during spring 2020 – up from 20% pre-lockdown – and held steady through to the end of the year (30%).
  5. Supermarkets rapidly expanded their online deliveries; by December 2020, 11% of UK grocery market sales were online, up from 5% at the beginning of the year. Just Eat was the most popular food delivery service – visited by nearly 10 million hungry Brits in December 2020 – with orders from October to December 58% higher year-on-year.
  6. 13-17 year-olds’ online and offline spend, as a proportion of total spend: January 2019 to March 2021
    How 13-17 year-olds spent their time online and offline, from January 2019 to March 2021. At its peak, total online spend as a proportion of total spend was 68%, in March 2021. At its lowest, total online spend was 36% in January 2020.
  7. See Ofcom's Children's and Parents' Media Literacy Tracker 2020/21.
  8. For the first time Ofcom’s Online Nation includes research into adult content to support our new duties as regulator for UK-based video-sharing platforms, and as we prepare to take on new responsibilities for regulating online safety.
  9. Family, Kids and Youth research. According to our Children’s Media Lives research, most girls and boys we spoke to used filters to edit pictures and videos they posted on social media. Some used ‘fun filters’ to give themselves animal ears or a tongue, for example. But even the younger children used ‘subtle’ filters to change their appearance in shared photos online – such as smoothing out their skin.

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