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A study of how family shapes children's digital outcomes

Updated: 18 November 2021

Since the mid-1990s policymakers, industry and academic actors have been heavily invested in the idea that digital technologies hold the key to overcoming social inequalities through empowering individuals everywhere by democratising access to information, education, communications and opportunities. Although digital and internet technologies have had enormous social, economic, and political impact in a relatively short period., this deterministic view of technology has been found wanting, time and time again. Now, the rapid digitalisation of business, government and society has many worried that digital divides are here to stay, if not getting worse. Added to this, the Covid-19 pandemic has increased our reliance on digital technologies making it more urgent to address the social factors that underlie digital exclusion.

Researchers now acknowledge that diverse uses of digital technology may be reproducing social inequality, exacerbating digital divides (Deursen & Dijk, 2014; Haddon et al., 2020a, p. 12). To date, digital exclusion has most often been framed in cause-and-effect terms, with minimal access and poor digital skills being seen as the primary barriers to achieving a more inclusive digital society. Although both access  and skills are antecedents to being online, these do not determine how individuals will use and benefit from the internet. This framing of the digital divide fails to consider that there may be other social factors which perpetuate digital exclusion. While issues of access and digital skill are important and can be addressed through pragmatic means, this project sought to understand how familial social factors influence children's engagement with digital technology, and provides a necessary adjunct to the digital divide debate.

Our research explores how families engage with digital technologies, and offers a fresh approach to understanding the issue of persistent digital divides. In the first of a series of publications, we hope to shift conceptions of 'what being digitally included looks like' among policy-makers, the many non-profit and charitable organisations, and schools that work to increase digital outcomes for New Zealanders.

This project started with an open mind, using qualitative methods to explore families and their use of technology. It observed familial dispositions and their access to social, economic and cultural capital, and how this influenced children's engagement with digital technologies. The findings of this research shed light on the issue of why some children appear to gain little from using digital technology, while others  appear to flourish in the digital society, irrespective of having access and digital skills.

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