UK’s ‘decade of digital dependency’

The 10 years since smartphones took off have seen us become more dependent on our digital devices – with positive and negative consequences – research from Ofcom finds. The research also shows smartphones being used more for text than for speech for the first time.

Decade-of-digital-changePeople in the UK now check their smartphones every 12 minutes of the waking day – but for the first time do so more  for text rather than voice, communications regulator Ofcom reports this week, in its study of how technology has revolutionised lives over the past 10 years.

Ofcom’s Communications Market Report is the regulator’s most comprehensive annual study to date of how communications services in the UK are changing.

The research shows that the time we spend making phone calls from our mobiles has fallen for the first time, as we increasingly use services like WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger. Using a mobile for phone calls is considered important only by 75% of smartphone users, compared to 92% who consider web browsing important.

Most people now say they need and expect a constant internet connection wherever they go.

Ofcom reports that two in five adults first look at their phone within five minutes of waking up, rising to 65% of those aged under 35. And 37% of adults check their phones five minutes before going to sleep, rising to 60% of under-35s.

Ofcom’s report tracks UK mobile use since 2008, the year the smartphone took off in the UK. With the iPhone and Android fresh to market, 17% of UK residents owned a smartphone at that point.

Today that has reached 78% – and 95% among 16-24 year-olds. “The smartphone is now the device people say they would miss the most, dominating many people’s lives in both positive and negative ways,” says Ofcom.

For many, being online has negative effects – with 15% saying it makes them feel like they are always at work, and more than half (54%) admitting that connected devices interrupt face-to-face conversations with friends and family.

More than two in five (43%) admit they spend too much time online.

Two-thirds of adults (64%) say the internet is an essential part of their life. One in five adults (19%) say they spend more than 40 hours a week online, an increase from 5% just over 10 years ago.

For the first time, women spend more time online than men.

Ofcom says better access to the internet has transformed the way we interact with each other. Two in five (41%) say being online helps them work more flexibly, while three-quarters (74%) say it keeps them close to friends and family.

Around a third of people say they feel either cut off (34%) or lost (29%) without the internet, if they can’t get online, and 17% say they find it stressful. Half of all adults (50%) say their life would be boring if they could not access the internet.

Some do see a lack of internet access in a positive light. One in 10 feel more productive offline, rising to 15% for 18- to 34-year-olds. Some 16% say they feel less distracted.

The proportion accessing the internet on their mobile has increased from 20% almost a decade ago, to 72% in 2018. The average amount of time spent online on a smartphone is two hours 28 minutes a day. This rises to three hours 14 minutes among 18-24s.

Seventy-two per cent of adults say their smartphone is their most important device for accessing the internet, while 71% say they never turn off their phone and 78% say they could not live without it.

Ofcom director of market intelligence Ian Macrae said: “Over the last decade, people’s lives have been transformed by the rise of the smartphone, together with better access to the internet and new services.

“Whether it’s working flexibly, keeping up with current affairs or shopping online, we can do more on the move than ever before. But, while people appreciate their smartphone as their constant companion, some are finding themselves feeling overloaded when online, or frustrated when they’re not.”

Older and younger generations disagree on what they see as acceptable smartphone use around others, although many people admit that the way they behave in public on their smartphones is unacceptable.

Three-quarters of people find it annoying when someone is listening to music, watching videos or playing games loudly on public transport – while 81% object to people using their phone during meal times.

More than half of adults say they are usually on their phone while watching TV with others. Six in 10 people over 55 think this is unacceptable – but that drops to just two in 10 (21%) among those aged 18-34.

Ofcom: The Communications Market 2018