How families engage with digital technologies: a research project

20/20 Trust and Social Research NZ Collaboration

Working through community outlets such as the Massey Community Hub located at Colwill School, 20/20 Trust has put over 20,000 people through digital equity programmes that include; digital literacy training, providing access to the Internet at home and to digital devices. This has connected previously marginalised individuals to the internet and given them access to information, education, services, and social connection.

Many of our (20/20 Trust) digital skills programmes target seniors and parents providing them with much needed digital literacy and access to digital devices. The courses have to date focused on raising individual digital literacy and access to digital devices and the Internet. However, we are increasingly interested in what services might be provided to families as a whole.

We are working with Dr Caroline Keen of Social Research NZ, and who is conducting research exploring how families engage with digital technologies in the home environment. She is keen to access the full range of families from those who maybe heavily invested in digital technology to those who are not. For some groups, such as Māori, Pacific ethnic communities and refugees there remain persistent digital inequalities, and so this research may offer new insights into how families within these communities engage with digital technology.

Dr Keen’s research will look at how families engage with digital technologies in the home, identifying beliefs and attitudes that underpin varying levels of trust and motivation to use digital technology, and which ultimately influence digital inclusion outcomes for family members. In order to reach families that have and may continue to experience digital exclusion, many of which are Māori, Pacific Island, and other ethnic communities and refugee communities, the 20/20 Trust was willing to help by connecting Dr Keen with families who have been participants of their digital equity programmes.

Working with Sue West, Executive Director of 20/20 Trust, and also Nicola Adam, the Community Hub Manager working within the Colwill School, the Trust was able to provide access to families. In an overwhelming response, most parents approached have agreed to interviews.

For the 20/20 Trust, that have worked with low income and digitally marginalised groups, largely within refugee, and other ethnic communities, Māori and Pacific Island communities, programmes have targeted individuals such as seniors, or parents, with the aim of assisting social connection, access to essential services, and developing digital work skills.

However, digital exclusion continues to be problematic in these vulnerable communities. While the work of connecting households to the internet and providing devices for individuals continues to be important, we also need to know more about how families use the internet. While digital programmes can measure their effectiveness in terms of individual outcomes, less in known about how this impacts families as a whole.

Dr Keen’s research interested us because it could provide a glimpse into how these families are engaging with digital technology, and whether family attitudes towards these technologies may shape and influence digital inclusion outcomes.

For not for profits (NFP) like the 20/20 Trust, understanding family digital cultures may lead to enhanced digital inclusion outcomes. By embracing the family as a succinct  and influential entity in children’s digital inclusion we can identify barriers preventing their affective use of digital technologies. We may then be able to develop ‘wraparound’ services to further enhance digital equity for families.

Insights so far…
Families are keen to talk about digital technology use, especially in light of this year’s Covid-19 pandemic and our increased reliance on digital technology. Many parents feel overwhelmed by conflicting ideas about children’s use of digital technology, with public policy, telecom firms and academics, advertising often warning them about children’s “screen time”, and other messages that call on parents to help their children gain “21 st century skills” that will be required for the increasingly unstable labour environment, lest their children be left behind.

From initial conversations and interviews, it is apparent that trust and motivation to use internet and digital technologies vary enormously between families. These differences have been heightened due to the current pandemic conditions requiring families to stay home.

Some families have found the increased reliance on digital technology to work and supervise children’s distance learning from home to be time consuming and disappointing. Some mothers have told us that for the younger children the transition to online learning was basic and somewhat boring, a little disorganised, and so they pushed children to do more exercise, play and leisure time, often connecting with friends on social media. Others have said their teenagers cope well working remotely. One teacher reported that on the first day back after lockdown they had an almost 100% attendance rate, better than they ever had before Covid-19! That children were so eager to have face-to-face interactions, and parents eager for children to attend school, tells us that digital practices within families remain variable and problematic, and that digital technology is not yet at a point where it can supersede physical human connection.

One mother expressed her enjoyment that during lockdown they could do more outdoor exercise with their children and have more quality family time. This family had a modest investment in digital devices, and was less concerned about keeping up with the latest devices. She consciously placed limits on her children’s digital use, and the children although young, were limited in their overall digital experiences. There was a distrust of social media, as talking with others online was perceived as inauthentic, not real, and potentially dangerous. Overall, while mum believed that digital technology would continue to rapidly evolve and be a key aspect of her children’s lives in the future, her attitude to using digital technology remained largely pragmatic. The family used digital technologies to complete necessary functions such as doing school lessons online, and dad now doing his job from home full time. Digital technology was conceptualised as a vehicle to obtain, store and transfer information rather than something that was needed to integral to daily life.

In another family, dad expressed his concern that his children were constantly on their devices, and compared this to his ideal family scenario which involved living a life of physical isolation ‘in the mountains’ where there would be no call for the digital world. This parent was clearly alienated from digital life, but felt that digital devices and connection did not offer any real sense of value to everyday life, instead preventing families from enjoying each other and living an authentic life. Dad positioned himself as external to digital life, with little motivation to incorporate digital technology into his family’s daily life.

Another mum who had a photography business, had used digital technology productively, during the lockdown to catch up on editing work, outsource work online, and streamline her business processes. She, her husband and children used digital technologies for their functionality, as tools, for business and for social connection. She had an impressive array of business and digital skills, which enabled her to create more digital business opportunities, and develop new digital processes to streamline her business which she claimed would free up her time so she could spend more time with her family.

As a preliminary insight, we can see that parents’ beliefs about digital technology may heavily influence how families use digital technology in the present and looking into the future, with some embracing digital technologies themselves, some seeking to ensure a balance between off and online activities, and others objecting to the rapid intrusion of digital technology into family life.

Dr. Caroline Keen and Sue West
The research is funded by Internet New Zealand