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12 hours daily screen time: COVID speeds up digitalization of Israeli society

Annual roundup of internet use by national phone company Bezeq shows users spent an average of 12 hours a day in front of a screen in 2020, as lockdowns kept nation at home

Stuart Winer is a breaking news editor at The Times of Israel.

An Israeli student seen during a remote class at her home in Moshav Haniel, northern Israel, on January 25, 2021. (Chen Leopold/Flash90)
An Israeli student seen during a remote class at her home in Moshav Haniel, northern Israel, on January 25, 2021. (Chen Leopold/Flash90)

The coronavirus outbreak caused an acceleration in the digitalization of Israeli life last year as the virus prompted lockdowns that led to an increase in online activities for work, study and play, according to a report from national phone company Bezeq released Wednesday.

Among trends identified were an increase in video-streaming, along with greater comfort in using online services for bureaucracy and daily tasks.

The 2020 annual report, which also included a survey of internet use among a representative sample of the population, found that there are 6.7 million people online in the country, representing about 76 percent of households.

Israelis spend an average of 12 hours a day in front of screens and the average user downloads some 12 gigabytes a day, an increase of 30% during the coronavirus outbreak, compared to figures from last year.

Three national lockdowns, the third of which is ongoing and currently scheduled to be eased at end of the month — though it may run longer — shut down nonessential businesses as well as most of the education system, forcing people to work from home and students to switch to remote learning.

The survey found that 62% said they would prefer to work from home even after the coronavirus crisis is resolved, with 63% saying working from home was easier for them.

However, 69% of parents with children at home who were learning online said the balance between work and home life was impacted, with 57% saying that helping their children while trying to work was making them less efficient and requiring them to work longer hours.

Among women in particular, 43% said they felt they were less good at being mothers when they worked from home.

For children, many of whom have spent most of their time at home and with greatly reduced access to outdoor social activity, the lockdowns have taken their toll. Despite online interactions, 83% of students reported feelings of loneliness, and among girls, 62% said they had felt depression or anxiety. A clear majority of 60% said they do not want to continue studying via Zoom, the application of choice for remote learning.

Israeli students during a remote learning session at their home in Moshav Yashresh, on March 18, 2020. (Yossi Aloni/Flash90)

The burden of running work and study from home led 69% of parents to admit they have allowed their children more screen time in order to enable themselves to carry out their own tasks, with 40% saying they also allow children as young as one or two years old screen time.

Among 13- to 18-year-olds, 70% admitted they play games for at least 20 hours a week, and a similar percentage of parents reported that their children prefer to play with smartphones instead of other activities such as non-screen-based games and activities.

Though many said they had either set a medical appointment, consulted with a medical professional, ordered medication or had therapy sessions online, 70% said they were concerned that speaking with a doctor remotely could lead to a wrong diagnosis and that they prefer an in-person appointment.

Bezeq CEO of marketing and innovation at Bezeq, Keren Leizerovitch. (Courtesy Bezeq)

“Last year was characterized by an acceleration in the process of digitalization in all sectors,” said Bezeq’s deputy CEO of marketing and innovation, Keren Leizerovitch.

“The coronavirus kept all of us at home and changed the way we work, buy and study and in particular stressed the necessity for stable internet which is becoming a basic consumer product in every household,” she said.

She noted that while in the past there were those who were wary of carrying out activities online, such as purchases or money transfers, “the coronavirus has made all of us digital experts.”

Leizerovitch predicted the number of devices using internet services in each home will only grow, as will video viewing, demanding faster and more advanced infrastructure.

Shopping online

Many stores have been closed for months at a time over the past year due to lockdown regulations.

According to the report, 90% of consumers moved their shopping online, with 66% saying they increased their online spending last year. A majority, 56%, said they currently prefer to buy online than at a store where there is the danger of infection with the coronavirus. The biggest increases in online purchases were for computers, cellphones, clothes, shoes, books and electrical goods.

Despite the trend toward online shopping, 37% said they bought less online over the last year over economic concerns during the pandemic.

Closed-down stores in the Givatayim Mall during a nationwide lockdown, January 18, 2021. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

Among those who went shopping online, 80% made purchases at Israeli sites compared to 56% from international outlets.

Digital bureaucracy gained a firm hold, with 94% saying they use the format and 69% reporting they were using more digital services than they did in 2019.

Fake news confusion

While 60% said they get news from social media, only 19% said they believe it is a reliable source. However, 63% said they find it hard to tell the difference between fake and real news, with 48% saying they are uncertain even after checking the information. Israeli news websites are still the prime source of information, with 76% saying they get news from such outlets.

Israelis also became more accustomed to using the internet for recreation, with 67% watching various culture performances from home. Nearly everyone, 93%, said they use streaming services. Similarly, 90% said they listen to music online and 40% said they listen to podcasts.

A sport instructor and owner of a fitness club doing the splits on Jaffa street in Jerusalem, as part of a protest against the ongoing closure of fitness clubs following the spread of the COVID-19, November 19, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Gyms and fitness centers were also hard hit by lockdown closures, making the internet a major source for fitness information, with 57% saying they work out at home and 71% of those who engage in sporting activities preferring to use workout videos they find online.

Among those exercising at home, 30% said they workout with Zoom sessions and 24% said they use an exercise application. Nearly half of those exercising at home, 46%, are teenagers, the report found.

Digital dating

Among singles, 40% said they tried remote dating, of which 64% admitted they felt it had saved them a lot of time.

However, 65% said that they didn’t enjoy remote romancing as much as going on a real-world date.

The survey was carried out by TNS-KANTAR and involved 2,300 people over the age of 18 nationwide, including samples of 13- to 18-year-olds.

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