More than half of the UK’s 16-24 year olds are using social networking sites such as MySpace and Bebo at least once a week, as the “networked generation” turns its back on television, radio and newspapers in favour of online communities.

More than 70 per cent of 16-24 year olds polled by Ofcom told the communications regulator they visited such sites, and 54 per cent used them at least weekly. Only about 12 per cent of internet users aged 35 or over used such sites weekly.

The findings underscore a rapid divergence between young consumers’ media habits and those of older generations, which could have worrying implications for traditional media companies.

The under-24 year olds sampled watch about 18 hours of television a week – seven hours fewer than the average viewer and one-and-a-half hours fewer than in 2004. They are also spending just 59 per cent of that time watching the five main terrestrial television channels, down from 70 per cent four years ago.

The demographic gap is narrower for internet usage, with 16-24 year olds spending just under three hours online each week, or 21 minutes more than the average. However, 16-24 year olds were far more likely to have reduced their consumption of newspapers, magazines, radio or games consoles as a result of their internet use.

Ed Richards, chief operating officer of Ofcom, said the figures on younger consumers’ use of social networking sites were “very significantly higher” than Ofcom had expected. “Clearly there remains a big challenge for [the operators of such sites] in how they turn this activity into profitable activity,” he said.

Traditional media groups have begun to position themselves for the shift of audiences. Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation bought MySpace for $580m last year, ITV bought Friends Reunited for more than £120m, and Viacom is considering a bid for Bebo.

“We don’t think that any medium is going to die as a result of this,” Mr Richards said.“We don’t know if these people will start reading newspapers . . . when they’re a bit older.”

Ofcom’s annual report into the UK’s media and telecommunications market found 38 per cent of 16-24 year olds watch television over personal computers, in spite of the relative shortage of legal video content available online. The figure will encourage companies such as BT Group and British Sky Broadcasting, which are making more programming available over broadband.

Younger internet users are more prolific bloggers, with 19 per cent saying they have their own weblog, compared to about 11 per cent of all internet users.

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