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Exploring how families shape children's digital outcomes

Digital disposition

This study confirmed that parents and their children possess a common disposition toward digital technology and the internet:

  • Digital disposition influences our motivation and what we do online.

  • Children and parents had shared conceptions of how digital technology could impact their present and future life opportunities.

  • Familial digital disposition regulates the types of digital capital that are valued and accumulated, influencing children’s digital technology experiences and outcomes.

  • For instance, although children all said they had received digital skills education at school (notwithstanding variations in this), their assimilation of these digital skills into their daily digital practices varied dramatically. Conditions within the home, the culture of technology use, and access to capital are all factors influencing children’s digital outcomes.

  • Familial digital disposition was found to be correlated most strongly with one's upbringing, and parent's occupation and education. Factors such as ethnicity, age, gender, or disability were not necessarily precursors to digital exclusion or inclusion.

Key insights

​​​While the digital outcomes for families from opposite ends of the socio-economic scale may differ dramatically, there are considerable gains to be made from understanding those familial dispositions that sit in the middle of this spectrum.

  • There were vast differences between families at the very extremes of the socio-economic spectrum. First, in terms of their accrued forms of digital capital, and second, the degree to which they mobilised existing capital online.

  • For the most part, while all families used digital technologies the majority did not necessarily use digital technologies in ways that effectively build capital.

  • Upper-middle SES families (Digital Experts, Digital Entrepreneurs, and Digital Critics) were predisposed to using digital technologies in ways that advanced their social, economic, and cultural capital, and were generally more confident and motivated, more likely to participate through collaboration, to generate and share content.

  • While there is great cause for concern at the almost absolute digital exclusion experienced by families at the bottom of this socio-economic scale (Digitally Alienated), there should also be concern about families in the middle zone who are at risk of further exclusion.

  • Middle-lower SES families (Digital Controllers and Digital Sceptics) were not using digital technologies in ways that mobilise existing capital online, preventing improvement in capital. These families may therefore be at risk of diminished life circumstances as digitalisation becomes ubiquitous across society. In other words, they were not building the types of digital capital needed to maintain or improve social conditions. This group, although less visible under traditional ‘access’ and ‘skills’ deprivation criteria, are nevertheless at risk of increasing exclusion and decreasing agency over their life circumstances.

As well as economic capital, a family’s social and cultural capital influenced the quality of digital engagement and outcomes.

  • For instance, Digital Experts, Digital Entrepreneurs and Digital Critics were more likely to have quality devices that encouraged and enhanced the depth of user engagement such as laptops and desktop computers, while other dispositions such as our Digital Sceptics, Digital leisure seekers, and Digitally Alienated families, typically favoured smart phones which tend to diminish user engagement, creation and information seeking behaviour, a trend toward a “mobile underclass” (Napoli & Obar, 2014). While the affordability of these devices is a factor, smart phones are increasingly designed around social interaction and are therefore a major draw card for larger geographically dispersed families who place a high value on maintaining strong cultural and familial bonds.


Contrary to narratives about the democratising benefits of the internet, civil and political participation online was generally low across all families studied.

  • It was interesting that most families were less inclined to participate in civil or political debate on social media or news platforms. Many regarded this as too toxic and risky. Some felt the need to minimise social media exposure for cultural or health reasons, while others described themselves as spectators enjoying displays of conflict but not venturing to take part. However, it was striking that most did not claim to place opinion in public settings online, or intentionally join political movements or interest groups. Digital Experts and Digital Critics, however, were far more likely to be aware of social and political issues, to research these online, to discuss and contest these among each other, developing critical skills to authenticate information sources increasing political capital offline.


Creativity, collaboration and sharing of content was limited generally, but all families had talents that could be transposed, and potentially flourish, in the digital context.

  • While industry narratives of the ‘digitally savvy’ young generation promote the potential for collaboration and productivity, most children did not produce content (vlogs or blogs, streaming content to public audiences) in their extracurricular time.

  • While parents and children might share personal information with family and friends, producing and sharing content with public audiences was generally not practised by parents or children in most families in the study.

  • Only our Digital Experts and Digital Entrepreneurs applied (school sanctioned) digital tools to create and share content in their extracurricular time and used these in ways that could generate capital benefits.

  • For the most part, educative and policy narratives issue warnings to adults and young people to not share information, running counter to the development of skills required to manage and build identity in ways that enhance capital and allow you to compete in the digital environment.

Study details

  • The study was conducted between August 2020 to August 2021.

  • A mixed methods approach was used, which included questionnaires and semi structured qualitative interviews. The questionnaires collected socio-economic data as well as data about digital practice. The interviews were conducted between August and September 2020. Most were conducted over Zoom due to Covid-19 pandemic conditions.

  • Fifteen families took part with 60% identifying as European New Zealanders, and around 20% identifying as Māori, 20% as Pasifika, 3% as Middle Eastern refugees. The sample consisted of 17 parents and 18 children ranging from aged 13 to 16.

  • Given the small sample findings should not be assumed to be statistically representative of all New Zealand families.

  • Research instruments were designed using Pierre Bourdieu’s theory of practice tools, to deepen understanding of the social conditions impacting digital practice and outcomes.

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