The internet has a new user
Forget the 20-something man playing online fantasy football and selling motorbike parts on eBay. The internet has a new user.
For years cyberspace has been tailored to an audience of mainly young men but for the first time women webusers have taken the lead in key age groups. At the same time an army of silver surfers has emerged and the over 65s are spending more hours online than any other age group.
The latest snapshot of Britain's communications market by regulator Ofcom turns the established assumptions about web users upside down. It also shows all of us spending more time online and on our mobiles than ever before.
Watching television, surfing the web, making phone calls and listening to the radio now take up an average 50 hours a week. While TV watching, radio listening and home phone use have all fallen since 2002, our daily minutes on the web have doubled.
The UK has the most active internet population in Europe thanks to widely available broadband connections that are getting cheaper every year.
The boom in web use is nothing new. But what website owners such as newspapers, TV companies and travel agents have to get to grips with is a new type of surfer.
One significant trend that stands out is an apparent feminisation of the internet. "Ever since it kicked off in the early 90s the web has been male-dominated. For the first time this year women are spending more time on the internet than men," says Peter Phillips, strategy and market developments partner at Ofcom, referring to web users in the 25 to 49 age bracket. "It's a big shift and has implications for the kind of content that content providers want to have on the internet."
Among 25- to 34-year-olds, women now spend more time using the internet than men, according to the Ofcom report published today. Although men account for the majority of web time in most other age groups, women have also taken a slight but significant lead in the 35-49 bracket.
Ofcom's researchers put the changing pattern partly down to young women finding more sites online that are relevant to them.
"Women in that age group are also more likely to be at home and have more time to spend online," says the watchdog's director of research, James Thickett.
In the teenage bracket, a growing female presence online is being driven by the emergence of new sites specifically tailored to teenage girls. Perhaps unsurprisingly, some of these surfers' favourite destinations are social networking sites where they can extend the school day's gossip sessions late into the evening at home.
Indeed, the social networking phenomenon Bebo is taking up more of UK surfers' time than any other website barring the auction site eBay.
Ofcom's research proves it is easier than ever for children to conduct large portions of their life online. Almost one in six 13- to 15-year-olds now have their own webcam, for example. Mobile phones are even more widespread, 75% of 11-year-olds have one as well as their own TV and games console.
Much has been made of the trend among children to use various media simultaneously, such as browsing the web while watching TV. But for all the multitasking, their growing take-up of mobile phones and the web, where they spend an average two hours a day, still comes at the expense of older media. Playing on computer games and watching DVDs have both fallen.
Radio has been hardest hit. The proportion of 8- to 15-year-olds listening has halved to just 20% over the last two years. Luckily for broadcasters, there is still one age group listening to more radio. The over-55s are listening to 5.5% more than five years ago. But more striking is the older age-group's take-up of newer media.
One in six over-65s uses the web, particularly in search of news and local information. Pensioners have predictably come late to the internet just as they did to mobile phones and digital TV. But once online, they make use of their retirement to spend longer surfing than anyone else. Their 42 hours online every month dwarfs the 25 hours teenagers spend on the web.
Again the changing audience brings new challenges for website owners, who had grown accustomed to a younger user.
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