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14 Dec 2011

The UK is officially Europe's most screen-addicted nation: Britons spend more time online, own more smartphones and digital video recorders and watch more television over the internet than any country on the Continent.

The British spend an average of 746 minutes (more than 12 hours) a week online, longer than any of the world's major economies except the USA, according to media and telecoms watchdog Ofcom's sixth International Communications Market Report.

Revealing the full extent of the UK's obsession with screen-based shopping and entertainment, Ofcom says UK digital TV penetration is the highest in Europe, with 97% of households receiving more than the five basic channels. France is the second highest, with 93%, and America some way behind at 87%.

Some 36% of Britons own a digital video recorder – less than in the US, but considerably higher than in France (21%) or Germany and Italy (22%).

The BBC's iPlayer and Channel 4's 4OD have persuaded 27% of Britons to watch TV online every week, higher even than the US, where the total is 23%.

Smaller screens are also inviting eyeballs. Smartphone penetration in the UK reached 46% of all mobile subscribers in August this year, more than in Europe an the US and up from 24% the year before, according to figures by analyst Comscore quoted in Ofcom report. The next highest was Spain, with 45% penetration.

With iPhones, BlackBerrys and Android handsests by the likes of Samsung and HTC available in the UK at heavily subsidised prices in exchange for a two year contract, some 61% of young subscribers have been able to acquire smartphones. Interest is not confined to the young: in Britain, one quarter of 55 to 64 year olds questioned in an online survey claimed to access the internet from their phones.

James Thickett, Ofcom research director, said competition for attention from a panoply of smartphones, laptops and tablets had not led to a decrease in television viewing. Shows such as The X Factor and The Only Way Is Essex have encouraged viewers to react online while watching.

"Instead of one technology replacing another we are seeing people learning to simultaneously use different devices. You might be watching TV while texting or checking Facebook messages. Far from getting lost in this digital revolution, the opposite is happening, TV has managed to reinvent itself as a medium that complements other media."

UK consumers also shop more online, spending an average of 84 minutes a month on retail websites, with French consumers the next most devoted web bargain hunters, spending an average 83 minutes.

Time spent browsing virtual shelves is more likely to translate into a purchase in the UK, where 79% ordered goods and services in 2010. The Dutch are the next most likely to make it to the checkout, with 74% spending online.

The British are among the first to buy from their phones, with more than 10% having visited an auction site such as Ebay by May this year, compared to between 3.4% and 6.7% on the continent.

"We've always been a mobile nation," said Thickett, "and we have been very quick to take up smartphones."

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