• ofcomAdults now spend almost 50 days of their year online
  • Increased internet concern, though most agree benefits outweigh risks
  • Widespread support for tighter online regulation, but many recognise importance of free speech

Internet users in the UK are increasingly worried about being online, new research suggests, with around four in every five harbouring concerns.

The joint study by Ofcom and the Information Commissioner’s Office[1] indicates the proportion of adults concerned about using the internet has risen since last year, from 59% to 78%.[2]

Similarly, 61% of adults have had a potentially harmful online experience in the past year. The figure rises to 79% among children aged 12-15.[3]

Most adults (59%) however, agree that the benefits of going online outweigh the risks, and 61% of children think that the internet makes their lives better.

State of the online nation

The findings are included in Ofcom’s first annual Online Nation report – an in-depth study of how people use the internet. The report examines how people are served by internet content and services, and their attitudes towards being online.

People’s online time is growing by around 7% annually. The average UK adult spent 3 hours 15 minutes per day online last year – a rise of 11 minutes since 2017. That translates to 1,192 hours over the year: the equivalent of around 50 days on the internet.[4]

The internet has transformed our working and social lives, making it easier and cheaper to communicate, and create and share content and information. Each week:

  • 44 million of us use the internet to send or receive email and 29 million send instant messages;
  • 30 million people bank or pay bills via the internet;
  • 27 million of us shop online; and
  • 21 million people download information for work, school or university.

Spam emails is the most common potential online harm (34%) encountered by adults
Despite these benefits, most people have also had potentially harmful online experiences. The potential online harms most commonly encountered by adults were unsolicited emails (34% experienced in the past year), fake news (25%) and scams or fraud (22%).

Among children, 39% experienced offensive language online; 28% had received unwelcome friend requests; 23% encountered cyber-bullying; and 20% had encountered trolling.[5]

Where harm takes place

Ofcom also studied where people come across their most recent potentially harmful experience. Social media is the leading source – in particular Facebook, which is cited by 28% of its adult users, followed by Instagram (16%) and Twitter (12%).[6]

61% of adults and 79% of children (12-15) have experienced potential online harms in the last 12 months, the largest proportion of which on social media sites/apps
Only 40% of adults agree that websites and social media sites provide the tools needed to keep them safe online, although this rises to 55% of children.

Attitudes to online regulation

Support for greater online regulation also appears to have increased in a range of areas. Most adults favour tighter rules for social media sites (70% in 2019, up from 52% in 2018); video-sharing sites (64% v. 46%); and instant-messaging services (61% v. 40%).

However, nearly half (47%) of adult internet users recognise that websites and social media platforms play an important role in supporting free speech, even where some people might find content offensive.

Yih-Choung Teh, Group Director of Strategy and Research at Ofcom, said: “As most of us spend more time than ever online, we’re increasingly worried about harmful content – and also more likely to come across it.

“For most people, those risks are still outweighed by the huge benefits of the internet. And while most internet users favour tighter rules in some areas, particularly social media, people also recognise the importance of protecting free speech – which is one of the internet’s great strengths.”