British people are increasingly fearful of the risks posed by the internet, prompting greater support for more regulation following recent headlines about the theft of personal data and abusive online behaviour.
Research by the media regulator Ofcom found 78% of Britons expressed unprompted concerns about potentially harmful online experiences, a substantial rise from the previous year.
As a result, the vast majority of Britons now support increased government intervention in the online media industry, suggesting technology companies have lost the public relations battle against regulation following the Cambridge Analytica scandals and concerns about the impact of social networks on children’s mental health.
Ofcom’s annual Online Nation report found 70% of the public wanted more regulation of social media sites, up from 52% just a year ago. The last 12 months have seen heavy media attention over the suicide of the teenager Molly Russell, after her parents blamed her death on material she saw on Instagram, in addition to a continued focus on disinformation.
“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,” said Ofcom’s director for strategy and research, Yih-Choung Teh.
“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.”
The figures were based on face-to-face interviews with more than 2,000 Britons, commissioned by Ofcom and the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO). Both organisations have an interest in the future regulation of the internet, with the ICO recently setting out proposals for a controversial new code which could require websites to block children from their services.
The Ofcom research also draws on other sources to show the extent to which Britons are increasingly reliant on the internet for day-to-day tasks, citing ComScore figures that suggest the average British internet user now spends an average of 3 hours 15 minutes a day online – equivalent to 50 days a year.
Much of this time is spent on services owned by Google and Facebook, which together account for a third of all British internet usage. In return, the two companies suck up 61% of all British online advertising revenue.
However, there are signs Britons’ online habits are changing. Although Facebook remains the dominant social network among adults, Ofcom’s figures show that usage is slipping, with people increasingly active on Instagram and the messaging service WhatsApp. Luckily for Mark Zuckerberg, both are owned by Facebook.
The research also found that while only a quarter of British adults trusted Facebook to provide accurate information, more than half believed WhatsApp could deliver reliable information – despite growing concerns over the spread of disinformation on the encrypted message services.
There is also the continuation of a striking digital age divide, with one in eight Britons never using the internet at all – mainly older, poorer individuals.
Although almost every Briton under 35 is a regular internet user, half of over-75s never go online at all, according to the Ofcom media literacy tracker. These individuals may struggle to adapt if high street shops and banks continue to close as business shifts online, while councils and government departments increasingly push people to use digital services rather than maintaining public offices.
“However, despite the range of concerns expressed about going online, a majority of internet users believe that the benefits of going online outweigh the risks,” concluded Ofcom.