Today Parenting for a Digital Future releases the fourth in its series of reports from our nationally representative survey of UK parents of children aged 0-17. This report highlights why digital inequalities matter in our increasingly digitalized and connected world. In this post, Sonia Livingstone and Dongmiao Zhang discuss the major findings from the study, and outline why socio-economic status and parental education are extremely important in shaping children’s digital lives and why. Sonia Livingstone is Professor of Social Psychology at LSE’s Department of Media and Communications and is the lead investigator of the Parenting for a Digital Future research project. Dongmiao Zhang is a Master in Public Administration candidate at LSE and a research assistant for Parenting for a Digital Future project.

In the race to get ahead in the digital age, some risk getting left behind. Research shows that social disadvantage compounds digital disadvantage. Therefore, the more parents invest in resources at home to support their child’s digital future, the more digital inequalities become apparent. Our qualitative research for The Class uncovered the difficulties disadvantaged families face in supporting their children in our competitive society. Yet statistics on children’s digital opportunities often neglect crucial forms of exclusion. Analysing the Parenting for a Digital Future survey, we ask which of six potential inequalities shapes children’s digital life chances:

  • Gender (of both parent and child)
  • Ethnicity (of the child)
  • Socio-economic status (SES of the household)
  • Parental education
  • Family composition (single parent vs couple)
  • Special educational needs (SEN) and disabilities (of the child)

Here we summarise the findings from our new report, the fourth in a series from our nationally representative survey of 2,032 UK parents of children aged 0-17.

Access and use: socio-economic status affects take-up of smart devices

  • Parents of higher SES or education are more digitally advantaged – they use a wider range of devices to go online: 24% of parents with a postgraduate degree have used wearable devices during the past month, compared to 11% of those with a college or university degree and 6% of those with secondary school education. Parents also experience more barriers to internet use if they are Black or parents of a child with SEN.
  • Children from high-SES families also use a wider range of devices and they go online more often, while one in five children from low-SES homes never or hardly ever uses the internet. Sixteen percent of children from a high-SES family have used smart home devices, 12% internet-connected toys and 9% a virtual reality headset, compared with 6%, 5% and 2.4% of those from a low-SES family respectively.


Digital skills – parental inequalities appear little-related to children’s skills

  • Parents with more education report more digital skills – such as saving a photo found online, changing privacy settings, or coding and programming. Yet interestingly, parents’ education and SES are not related to the child’s digital skills, such as whether they know how to search for information, save a phone number found online or programming.
  • However, children with a single parent have more digital skills than those from a couple family. And neither ethnicity nor special educational needs have an effect at all.

Online support for opportunities – parental education makes the most difference, though other factors also matter

  • Advantaged parents (parents with a higher SES or more education), mothers, and parents of children with SEN offer more forms of online support to their children, such as searching for information or advice about their child’s health, local activities and events, information to help their learning, signing up or paying for classes and activities online.
  • Children with more educated parents participate in more enrichment activities such as sports clubs, language group/lessons, computing or coding clubs and other technology-related clubs (e.g. video games, Lego Mindstorms, video editing, music technology).
  • Black children participate in more enrichment activities, followed by Asian children, with White children participating the least. Children with SEN appear to receive less enrichment opportunities, but their parents take up more opportunities for educational support.

Online risks – more internet use brings more risks and so necessitates more parental mediation

  • Parents with higher SES or more education, single parents and parents of children with SEN report that their children experience more online harms. This confirms prior findings that more use brings more risk of harm. Not surprisingly therefore, they also report more parental mediation, such as suggesting ways that their children can use the internet safely, discussing their online activities and using parental control or apps to block children’s access to certain types of websites.
  • Parents with a higher SES report more conflicts caused by screen time compared to those from a lower SES. However, there is no ethnic divide in parental mediation activities. Although parents of children with SEN tend to report more conflicts with their children, they do not differ in terms of conflicts caused by screen time.

The findings of the report highlight why digital inequalities matter in our increasingly digitalized and connected world. The most consistent findings concern forms of privilege – measured here by parental education or household socio-economic status. Differences in ethnicity, family composition or special educational needs are small and inconsistent, suggesting that parents are adopting some compensatory or alternative strategies to support their children.

As we discuss in our upcoming book, now that family life is thoroughly mediated, parents shift between embracing, balancing and resisting the role of digital technologies in their children’s lives. Some manage to mitigate disadvantage precisely by harnessing the potential of the digital, but the overall picture is one of persistent social stratification.

New possibilities for teaching, learning and parenting need to be accessible to everyone, if digitalization is to have a positive impact on the inclusiveness, diversity and healthy growth of our society. Governments and policy-makers need to recognise and act on the digital inequalities, and provide the necessary economic and social support to less advantaged groups.

This post gives the views of the authors and does not represent the position of the LSE Parenting for a Digital Future blog, nor of the London School of Economics and Political Science.