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Familial Influences on children's digital outcomes

How Family Shapes Children’s Digital Inclusion

Since the mid-1990s, policymakers, industry leaders, and academics have been heavily invested in the notion that digital technologies are the key to overcoming social inequalities by democratizing access to information, education, communications, and opportunities. Although digital and internet technologies have made a significant social, economic, and political impact in a relatively short period, the deterministic view of technology has repeatedly fallen short. With the rapid digitalization of business, government, and society, concerns are growing that digital divides are here to stay, or even worsening. Additionally, the Covid-19 pandemic has heightened our reliance on digital technologies, making it more urgent to address the social factors that underlie digital exclusion.

Researchers now recognize that diverse uses of digital technology may be reproducing social inequalities and exacerbating digital divides (Deursen & Dijk, 2014; Haddon et al., 2020a, p. 12). Historically, digital exclusion has often been framed in cause-and-effect terms, with minimal access and poor digital skills identified as primary barriers to a more inclusive digital society. While access and skills are essential for being online, they do not solely determine how individuals will use and benefit from the internet. This narrow framing of the digital divide overlooks other social factors that perpetuate digital exclusion. While addressing issues of access and digital skill is crucial, this project sought to understand how familial social factors influence children's engagement with digital technology, offering a necessary complement to the digital divide debate.

This research explores how families engage with digital technologies and introduces a new perspective on the persistent digital divides. In the first of a series of publications, we aim to reshape conceptions of 'what being digitally included looks like' among policymakers, non-profit and charitable organizations, and schools working to improve digital outcomes for New Zealanders.

This project began with an open mind, employing qualitative methods to explore how families use technology. It examined familial dispositions and their access to social, economic, and cultural capital, and how these factors influenced children's engagement with digital technologies. The findings highlight why some children seem to gain little from using digital technology while others thrive in the digital society, regardless of their access to technology and digital skills.

Shifting the Focus of Digital Divide Debates

Twentieth-century developments in computing and the internet were heralded as crucial for the social and economic progress of nation-states. Academic researchers believed ICT would be transformative, envisioning that a shift to a ‘knowledge economy’ would bring social and economic equality in the 21st century (Castells, 1996; Castells, 1997; Castells, 1998; Reich, 1991). Digital technologies were portrayed as empowering individuals (D’Allesandro and Dosa, 2001) by democratizing information, enabling all to participate (Katz et al., 2001) and flourish in an information-based society. Governments in developed countries heavily invested in technological infrastructure and private sector development, viewing digital technologies as essential for society and the economy.

Nevertheless, by the early 2000s, this technological determinism was challenged by concerns over the growing inequalities of access, causing a 'digital divide,' and after 25 years, such problems remain unresolved (Robinson et al., 2020). Many researchers have grappled with issues of internet access (Martin and Robinson 2004) and variation in children’s digital skills (Livingstone 2002, 2003), striving to counter the inequalities in children’s internet use through education (Livingstone and Helsper, 2007; Meneses and Mominó 2010). Additionally, other research has indicated that existing inequalities can be perpetuated by education systems as they value the higher technology-related capital accrued by students from middle-class families (Apps, 2019). Since the mid-90s, policies have focused on providing internet connections and devices and integrating digital technologies within schools. Covid-19 has reignited concerns by governments, academics, ICT industries, and non-profit organizations, echoing the early dichotomous notion of the digital divide as characterized by the ‘haves’ and ‘have-nots’ (Wresch, 1996). Such pragmatic approaches assume that digital skill and literacy education will produce competent digital citizens. However, ‘digital inclusion’ involves more than just the affordability of internet connections and digital devices.

Despite such provisions, recent research suggests that children’s technology practices are underpinned by their ‘dispositions or inclinations toward technology,’ offering a new line of inquiry into inequalities of use (Apps et al., 2019: 414). These dispositions influence their perceptions of technology, engagement with technology, and perceived opportunities through technology.

While issues of access and digital skill are important and can be addressed through pragmatic means, this research seeks to understand family digital cultures and their influence on children’s digital engagement and argues that this is a necessary adjunct to efforts aiming to improve digital inclusion. With persistent problems of a digital divide, a new approach is needed to understand diverse digital outcomes. Rather than focusing solely on the success of digital education, this research explores the role of families in shaping individuals' dispositions or inclinations toward digital technology and how this influences digital inclusion outcomes.

Given the 'new normal' of Covid-19, where households are now required to manage social distancing, work and attend school from home, and access essential services online, answers to the persistent problems of digital exclusion are even more urgent. This research seeks insights into how we might evaluate the digital dispositions of families and identify those who will struggle to become part of the digital society, allowing for more tailored interventions.

 

 

Key Insights

While the digital outcomes for families across different socio-economic scales may vary significantly, a deeper understanding of the dispositions of those families in the middle of the spectrum can yield considerable benefits.

  • Extremes of the Socio-Economic Spectrum: There are significant differences between families at the extremes of the socio-economic spectrum, particularly in the forms of digital capital they accrue and how they mobilize this capital online.

  • General Use of Digital Technologies: Most families engage with digital technologies, but the majority do not use these technologies in ways that effectively build capital.

  • Upper-Middle SES Families (Digital Experts, Digital Entrepreneurs, Digital Critics): These groups are predisposed to using digital technologies in ways that advance their social, economic, and cultural capital. They are generally more confident and motivated, likely to participate through collaboration, and to generate and share content.

  • Digital Exclusion Concerns: Significant concerns arise from the near-total digital exclusion experienced by families at the lower end of the socio-economic scale (Digitally Alienated). However, there is also concern for families in the middle zone (Digital Controllers and Digital Sceptics) who are at risk of further exclusion as they are not using digital technologies in ways that mobilize existing capital online, which could improve their life circumstances.

  • Impact of Social and Cultural Capital: Economic, social, and cultural capital influence the quality of digital engagement and outcomes. Families like Digital Experts, Digital Entrepreneurs, and Digital Critics often have quality devices that encourage deeper engagement, whereas other groups such as Digital Sceptics and Digitally Alienated families typically use smartphones which may limit engagement and content creation, contributing to a trend toward a "mobile underclass" (Napoli & Obar, 2014).

  • Low Civil and Political Participation: Contrary to narratives about the democratizing benefits of the internet, online civil and political participation was generally low across all families. Most families were reluctant to engage in public debates online, viewing social media and news platforms as toxic and risky.

  • Creativity and Content Sharing: While the potential for collaboration and productivity is often highlighted in industry narratives, actual content creation (like vlogs or blogs) was limited, mostly not practiced by families except for Digital Experts and Digital Entrepreneurs who used digital tools to create and share content, enhancing their capital.

  • Research Methodology: The study utilized a mixed-methods approach conducted from August 2020 to August 2021, involving questionnaires and semi-structured qualitative interviews. Interviews were mostly conducted via Zoom due to the COVID-19 pandemic, with a diverse sample of families participating.

  • Digital Divides and Internet Access: All participating households had some form of internet access, using various digital tools to maintain social connections and access entertainment. However, the quality of internet access and the types of devices used varied, impacting the nature of digital engagement.

  • Digital Skills and Values as Barriers: While most participants believed they had adequate digital skills, actual skill levels and digital outcomes varied dramatically due to occupational and educational factors. Additionally, family values sometimes acted as barriers to digital engagement, with some families viewing extensive online time as detrimental to cognitive development and contrary to important life values.

These insights underscore the complex interplay between socio-economic status, family values, and digital engagement, suggesting that tailored interventions need to consider these diverse factors to effectively address digital divides.

 

 

Six Familial Digital Dispositions

 

Digitally Alienated
Apathetic use of digital technology
These families displayed apathy toward using digital technology, largely influenced by broader societal forces. Disempowered by rapid digitalization, they could not envision themselves benefiting from it. Positioned at the lower end of the socioeconomic scale, with limited education and unstable employment, these families harbored an off-grid mentality, longing for a simpler, natural, and low-cost lifestyle.


Culture of Digital Technology Use
While these families engaged with digital entertainment via phones or Xbox, they minimized digital interactions with others and institutions. They resisted the increasing reliance on digital technology, hindered by cost and a lack of vision for its benefits. Home digital expertise was mi

nimal, with little access to institutional IT support networks. Despite some parents possessing basic ICT skills from government courses, they struggled to see how internet access and digital skills could enhance their lives.
 

Outcomes
Family members rarely participated online or shared content, preferring offline activities. With minimal capital and motivation to build digital capital, these families remained largely excluded from the digital society, risking further alienation with ongoing digitalization. Children in these families were uncertain about their future careers and how digital technology might be relevant.

Digital Controllers
Paradoxical use of digital technology
These families had a paradoxical view of the internet. They accessed online leisure and entertainment yet adhered to cultural values that discouraged extensive online presence. Necessary tasks were performed online, but leisure time on the internet was seen as a luxury and sometimes used as a disciplinary tool.

 

Culture of Digital Technology Use
Internet use was often rationed, not solely due to economic constraints but as a method to enforce family values of presence over digital accessibility. Parents monitored their children's online interactions to protect against risks like bullying and crime. Social media was crucial for maintaining connections with extended family but was not used to expand networks that could bring other forms of capital. Limited by the absence of quality computers and substantial IT support, these families had low digital know-how and confidence, which hindered the ability to build beneficial digital capital.

 

Outcomes
Online activities were sporadic and non-strategic, reflecting views of digital technology as a scarce luxury. Economic and social constraints limited deeper online engagement, thus restricting opportunities to enhance life circumstances through digital means. However, active use of social media maintained strong family connections. Children aspired to community-based, non-digital careers, focusing on contributing to community well-being.

Digital Entrepreneurs
Self-directed and explorative use of digital technology
These families were proactive and exploratory in their digital interactions, driven by an entrepreneurial mindset that valued creativity and productivity. They viewed the internet as a vast resource for enhancing knowledge and capabilities.


Culture of Digital Technology Use
The internet was seen as a tool for creativity, collaboration, and social interaction, vital for life skills. These families utilized online resources for learning and creative endeavors, heavily relying on the internet for educational purposes and business management. Children used the internet independently to pursue interests, enhancing their digital know-how. Despite limited institutional IT support, their self-directed learning online fostered significant digital expertise.

 

Outcomes
They eagerly explored digital services to enhance personal, social, and economic capital. Known as 'produsers,' they frequently created and shared online content. While children completed formal education, they were likely to pursue creative careers facilitated by their digital skills, viewing digital technology as essential for future success.

Digital Critics
Discriminating use of digital technology
These families were selective in their digital technology usage, emphasizing the importance of resisting digital dependence while recognizing its necessity for achieving educational and economic goals.


Culture of Digital Technology Use
Internet access was regulated with clear rules about time and social media usage, balancing online engagement with concerns about mental health impacts. Parents and children prioritized educational achievements, using digital tools strategically to access and exchange information. Excessive digital use was viewed as potentially harmful to cognitive and critical thinking skills. Parents were cautious of social media, considering it potentially detrimental to developing real-life relationships.


Outcomes
These families focused on using digital technology to gain qualifications and cultural capital, maintaining a critical approach to its role in their lives. They were cautious participants in online spaces, considering them potentially harmful to mental health. Children aimed for further education and professional careers that required efficient digital usage but also allowed significant real-world interaction.

Digital Sceptics
Indifferent use of digital technology
Characterized by a deliberate indifference, these families maintained a clear distinction between digital and offline lives, cautious of the risks associated with online activities.


Culture of Digital Technology Use
Internet use was self-restricted to minimize exposure to social and economic risks, prioritizing privacy by limiting online transactions. Their default was largely offline, engaging minimally on social media to stay connected with close contacts.


Outcomes
These families focused on developing personal and practical skills offline, seldom using digital means to enhance these abilities. Lacking motivation to engage with digital technology, they faced risks of increased exclusion as society and work increasingly digitize. Children were likely to pursue careers that demanded minimal digital skills, valuing practical, community-oriented work.

Digital Experts
Judicious use of digital technology
These families integrated digital technology seamlessly across their personal and professional lives, making informed and strategic use of online resources.

 

Culture of Digital Technology Use
Internet access was widespread, with children knowledgeable about their rights and the rules governing internet use. The family valued the educational and informational opportunities offered online, utilizing digital tools to enhance their capital effectively.

 

Outcomes
These families were adept at leveraging online platforms to increase their social and economic capital, developing digital skills that translated into real-world benefits. While civic and political engagement was generally low, they pursued their interests actively online. Children aimed for professional careers similar to their parents', effectively using digital technology to support their goals.

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