The “Digital Divide”

Digital technologies open up a world of possibilities and opportunities for today’s mokopuna. However, some children are less able to access the benefits than others. This “gap” in the opportunities available to some children but not others has been labelled the “digital divide”. There are two ways of conceptualising the “digital divide” and each may impact in different ways on children’s ability to develop the skills necessary to succeed in a digitally-mediated world. One form of digital divide arises from having restricted, or no access to digital technologies, no access to the internet or unreliable or poor internet connections. There are some children in New Zealand who have no or very limited access to digital technologies and internet in the home. This may impact on their education, as was seen when some children were unable to participate in online learning during Covid-19 lockdowns.

Some youth are facing difficulties in participating in the a digitally mediated knowledge economy on an ongoing basis. In the 2021 white paper “People for People: Navigating our Futures”, the authors write of students needing to go to McDonalds to access free wifi and trying to write an essay on a mobile phone. Another form of “digital divide” may result from differences in the media literacy and digital competencies of some children compared to others, which may present a barrier to carrying out screen-based activities that could lead to benefits in the short-term (e.g., digital citizenship, potential for greater participation in the wider community, and educational benefits) and longer term benefits (employability, higher paying jobs). For instance, there is evidence to suggest that screen-based activities such as doing homework on a computer or searching for information or reading the news online may lead to educational benefits, while talking on the phone or texting may not.

Research overseas has looked into whether youth fall into certain categories of technology users. For instance, van den Beemt et al. (2011) found four main categories of internet activities: interacting (communication), performing (playing games), interchanging (social activities), and authoring (production of an outcome). Rideout et al. (2016) also assigned categories to types of usage, including passive (using media created by others that does not need the user’s input, e.g. listening to music), and active consumption (using media created by others that needs the user’s input, e.g. games), communication, and creation. Authoring and creation are activities that arguably require higher levels of media literacy and digital competence than, for instance, passive consumption. Higher levels of engagement with these activities may place children at an advantage in the New Zealand education system, as it increasingly uses screen media and technologies in its curriculum.

Similarly to van den Beemt, the research we are carrying out at the moment aims to find out if there 8-year-olds in New Zealand fall into distinct groups of technology users, or if there are distinct “modes of use” of technology, e.g. do some children tend to mainly use digital technology for social media, texting etc., while others are tend to do more creative things, such as write music, do coding etc. Our study will be the first to do an in-depth analysis of how New Zealand children are using screens, which will potentially be very informative for teachers and policy makers wishing to strengthen and develop children’s digital competencies. We are also interested in the links between children’s modes of using screen technologies and their own self-assessed academic competency. It may be that children who have more experience with particular types of screen-based activities (e.g., creative activities like coding compared to passive viewing or to texting and phone calls) may be more confident in their ability to learn in digitally-mediated classrooms. Finally, we are interested in identifying some of the influences on how 8-year-old New Zealand children tend to use screen technologies outside of school.

Overall, our research will provide some insight into the types of technology use that might increase children’s feelings of academic competence and why some children might be more likely to carry out more beneficial screen-based activities than others. Hopefully, we will be able to use our findings in some way to narrow the digital divide, through making recommendations to parents, educators and policy makers, so that more children will benefit from the amazing opportunities that digital technology and media can offer. Watch this space!

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