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The enforced digitalisation of the pandemic

As anyone who reads my blog will have inferred, I’m fascinated by the enforced digitalisation of the pandemic. The reliance on digital platforms to ensure that physical distancing doesn’t mean social distancing has moved these technologies even further into the centre of everyday life for (the majority of) the UK population, as well as coming to dominate the stories we have told about our lives during the pandemic. These stories have been told, ironically, in large part through the platforms themselves.

This new Ofcom report has a lot of really useful data about what this enforced digitalisation looks like in practice, for the 86% of UK adults who used the internet in September 2020. This is a practice which is almost universal amongst 18-54 year olds, though the largest increase during the plague year (4%) was amongst the over 54s. Interestingly, time use overall for adults per day increased less between 2019 and 2020 (3 hr 28 min to 3 hr 37 min) then it did from 2017 (2 hr 57 min) to 2019. I wondered if age differences were hidden in these figures but seemingly not:

The same trend can be see in countries other than the UK:

It would be interesting to see this broken down by home workers and non-home workers though. Even at the height of the pandemic (April 2020) only 46.6% of UK adults worked from home, with the highest number being amongst 25-49 years olds who are also the most likely to have school age children they’re responsible for home schooling at the same time i.e. those who have have the biggest reliance on digital platforms for the interface with the outside world during this time are also most likely to have the biggest time pressures. It’s interesting to look at the ONS data about the class composition of home workers in April 2020:

There were noticeable increases across the UK adult population during lockdowns. The interesting question is whether the per day figures will continue to grow in 2021, suggesting that enforced digitalisation has led to a deepening of internet use within the UK.

Whereas internet use was fairly consistent across 2019, in 2020 there were notable monthly
increases in time spent online in the months when there was a national lockdown. Online UK adults. on average spent 4 hours 2 minutes online per day in April 2020, an increase of 37 minutes compared to April 2019. In November 2020, when England entered a four-week lockdown, there was a less pronounced increase: 9 minutes more than November 2019.16 In the first quarter of 2021, on average, online UK adults spent 3 hours 45 minutes online per day, 13 minutes more than in the first quarter of 2020

What I found most interesting (though least surprising) was how the largest platform ‘ate’ most of this increased time and attention. 42% of time online in April 2020 was spent on Facebook or Google owned sites, up from 39% in September 2019.

A similar pattern can be seen in app use in the UK. I thought it was striking that 83% of online over-15s said they used at least one on the Facebook apps on a daily basis.

Less than half the UK population was using video call platforms by March 2021 (after three lockdowns) despite the widespread sense in the media these were a ubiquitous feature of life:

The figures on digital exclusion are also striking, as I’ve blogged about before.

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