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Online habits Canadians picked up during pandemic lockdowns are showing signs of levelling out

By Georgia Evans

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Every year CIRA commissions an annual survey exploring how Canadians use the internet and publishes the insights in a new edition of Canada’s Internet Factbook. This year, CIRA is publishing a series of blog posts based on the findings of the 2023 Canada’s Internet Factbook survey. The blog that follows below is the third of four in the series.

The internet was a critical lifeline for Canadians while they struggled through a devastating global pandemic that lasted over three years and turned everyday life upside down. Without our home internet connections, it would have been nearly impossible for us to have adapted as quickly as we did to the unprecedented restrictions governments had to put in place to try to slow the spread of a new virus that medical science was struggling to understand.

By now it’s a well-worn story. Life changed—and changed fast. Daily activities that we used to do in person— working, learning, socializing—we were forced to do on the internet. We worked out, ordered our groceries and visited the doctor online. Those of us who had the option of working from home set up shop in whatever quiet corner was available and tried to get on with it as best we could. Unable to attend school in person, our children plugged in, logged on and made the challenging shift to online learning.

Streaming services like Netflix, Crave and Amazon Prime flourished, as many of us relied on them to help pass the long hours we were forced to spend at home. At the same time, the popularity of online gaming and connecting with family and friends over videoconferencing reached new heights.

But what about the myriad other ways in which we became reliant on constant connectivity?  Are all our pandemic-era online habits now so deeply ingrained that they’re here to stay? It’s true that the amount of time we spend online has stayed fairly steady since 2020, but it reached a peak in 2021 with 55 per cent of us saying we were spending more than 5 hours online every day. After falling slightly to 54 per cent in 2022, that number dropped to 50 per cent in this year’s Factbook survey.

While this may not be a dramatic decline, it’s a trend to watch, especially in light of the growing willingness of Canadians to disconnect from the internet altogether, whether for a few hours or a few days. In the last 12 months Canadians are more likely to have taken at least a one-day break from the internet (54 per cent) compared to 2022 when that number was just 41 per cent. That’s a significant jump.

Nineteen per cent of Canadians say they took a one-day break, while 18 per cent disconnected for 2 or three days. Regionally, the residents of Manitoba were most likely to take a longer break, with 27 per cent saying they disconnected for two or three days compared to the provincial average of 18 per cent. The top two reasons Canadians give for temporarily getting off the internet include to avoid wasting time (48 per cent) and to relax (41 per cent). Other top reasons include to recharge (31 per cent), to improve mental health (29 per cent) and to improve sleep (28 per cent).

On the surface, online shopping would seem like an area where consumer habits established during the pandemic might stand the test of time, but the numbers tell a different story. According to research from Statistics Canada, e-commerce increased sharply at the beginning of the pandemic, peaked in 2021, then receded as of mid-2022, as most government restrictions on retail businesses had been lifted for good by this point.1 This research aligns with the findings from our 2023 survey, in which 72 per cent of us say we prefer traditional “bricks and mortar” shopping to online shopping, compared to just 62 per cent in 2022.

And what about that other staple of pandemic life, video streaming? This is one activity that remains very popular among Canadians, with 72 per cent of us saying we spend at least one hour per day watching TV and movies online, down slightly from 75 per cent in 2022. At the same time, this year’s survey provides some evidence to suggest that our enthusiasm for paid streaming services may be beginning to wane. Netflix, which remains the most dominant subscriber-based online content provider, for example, reported subscriptions have declined 10 percentage points from 2022 (61 per cent) to 2023 (51 per cent).

The massive upheaval the pandemic created in the lives of Canadians had a major impact on how we use the internet today. As heavily as we relied on it—and continue to rely on it – the findings from the 2023 Factbook suggest that Canadians as a whole are developing a more balanced view of its impact on their lives and taking steps to benefit from the positives while moderating their usage to limit the negatives.

About the author
Georgia Evans

Georgia is a Policy & Advocacy Analyst at CIRA and is very passionate about internet governance and digital policy.