Digital divide narrowed during pandemic, Ofcom suggests

Broadband, News

The UK’s digital divide has narrowed during the coronavirus pandemic, as people go online to escape the lockdown, Ofcom research suggests.

The proportion of homes without internet access appears to have fallen from 11% in March 2020, when the UK entered lockdown, to 6% of homes in March this year.

Adults with previously limited digital skills have embraced online shopping, digital banking and video calling friends and family – while younger people acted as IT support, helping older or less digitally-confident friends and relatives get connected.

Digital exclusion

Despite many more people taking a leap of faith into the online world, for the 6% of households who remain offline, Ofcom’s research finds that digital exclusion during lockdown is likely to be more disempowering than ever.

Groups least likely to have home internet access are those aged 65+, lower-income households, and the most financially vulnerable. Almost half of adults who remain offline say they find the internet too complicated, or it holds no interest for them. Meanwhile, for more than a third of people a lack of equipment is a barrier.

However, six in ten of those who don’t use the internet at home say they have asked someone to do something for them online in the past year. Among these ‘proxy users’, the most common need was help in buying something.

Ofcom’s research on parents and children found nearly all children of school age had online access in the home, though 4% relied solely on mobile internet access during the pandemic – with 2% only able to get online using a smartphone. School-aged children from the most financially vulnerable homes (5%) were more likely than those in the least financially vulnerable households (2%) to have mobile-only access.

Additionally, around one in five children did not have consistent access to a suitable device for their online home learning. This increased to a quarter of children from households classed as most financially vulnerable.

Most children with intermittent access had to share a device to manage home-schooling. For 3% of schoolchildren, the lack of access to a device prevented them from doing any schoolwork at all.

Online escapism 

Online activities provided a welcome distraction for many of us during lockdown, Ofcom’s research suggests, with the pandemic accelerating our adoption of digital services.

Additional data suggests that the time children spent watching non-broadcast content (such as streamed content or online video) on their TV each week greatly increased last year – from 7 hours 49 minutes in 2019, to 11 hours 19 minutes– overtaking traditional broadcast viewing for the very first time (6 hours 54 minutes).

Gaming also grew in popularity among adults. More than half of adults played games on a device such as a smartphone, games console or PC, with a third of adults playing online, with or against other people.

Seven in ten 5- to 15-year-olds played games online in 2020, with boys in particular using this as a way to connect with their friends. A quarter of pre-schoolers aged 3-4 were also online gaming in 2020 – with their parents claiming that nearly half of them now own their own tablet and nearly one in 20 their own smartphone.

However, with children staying home from school and leisure or sporting activities cancelled, many parents admitted finding it more difficult to control their children’s screen time during the past year. This was the case for 40% of parents of 5-15 year-olds, and 30% of parents of pre-schoolers. Up to half of parents also said they had to relax their approach to their children’s online use as a result of lockdown restrictions.

Comments Nick Baker, broadband expert at

“Our broadband connections have become lifelines to the outside world during lockdown, with work, school and our social lives taking place online for long periods over the past year.

“On the positive side, this has meant that millions of people previously without internet access have taken their first steps online.

“Broadband companies also stepped up to the mark and kept services running even as demand rocketed, with three quarters of consumers saying they were happy with their provider’s performance.

“However, children spending more time on the internet have experienced more negative attention, with our research finding that a quarter of pupils said cyberbullying had become worse during lockdown.”

Chris Price
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