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Digital technology, SES and disadvantage

I have always assumed that there was a straightforward relationship between socio-economic status (SES) and opportunities to use digital technology outside school. However, data from a recent research project looking at children's use of digital technology outside school and what influence (if any) that had on practice inside primary schools hints that the relationship may be much more complex than this - and counter intuitively that those from 'higher' SES contexts may have less opportunity to use digital technology outside school than many from 'lower' SES contexts.

The project (NP3) collected data from over 100 children about their digital technology use. For 44 of these children focus group data was complemented by photographs of their digital technology use outside school (e.g. at home) and one to one interviews with each child and their parent about their out of school digital practices.

Access to devices

All of the children from whom we collected data for NP3 owned or had shared access to at least one mobile device at home. However, one High SES girl, who attended a private school that had a 1:1 iPad strategy, reported that she was not allowed to use her iPad at home and was not allowed to have any other digital devices until she was 13. The head of ICT in one of the two independent schools involved in the project commented that they had several parents who did not allow their children to use digital technology at home.

Nearly all of the parents set restrictions on when and for how long their children were allowed to use digital technology at home. One 'High SES' girl was restricted to 10 minutes on her iPad before school and 10 minutes in the evening. Several 'High SES' children were not allowed to use digital technology (other than watching TV) at home on weekdays. Most of the other children were limited to using digital technology after they had completed their homework/chores and for a maximum of one to two hours per day (longer at weekends).

Overall, there didn't seem to be a clear difference in the level of access to digital technology at home between the children in this study, except for a minority of 'High SES' children whose access was very limited. This is illustrated by the orange line in the diagram below.

Access to devices

'Spare' time

There did appear to be a difference between the amount of 'spare time' that children from Low and High SES contexts had. The children from High SES contexts appeared to spend a considerable amount of time in school (e.g. at homework club and extra curricula activities), often getting to school by 8am and not leaving until 6pm or later. They also took part in many other organised activities outside school (e.g. swimming lessons, horse riding, drama club, ballet lessons). This meant that these children had very little 'spare' time at home during which they could use digital technology. Even where children from Low SES contexts attended breakfast clubs or stayed to after school clubs they tended to spend less time in school and appeared to engage in many fewer organised activities outside school. Thus, they had more 'spare' time during which they could potentially use digital technology outside school. This is reflected in the green line in the diagram below.

Rules, restrictions and monitoring

In addition to limits on the time spent using digital technology, other rules and restrictions were often imposed, in particular in relation to access to the Internet and social media. Parents from children in High SES contexts appeared to impose tighter constraints and to have more sophisticated mechanisms for managing their children's access to the Internet and social media. For example, by having separate WiFi networks at home for the parents and children so that they could turn off the children's Internet access and/or impose tight controls and filters on it. Parents from High SES backgrounds also appeared to more closely monitor their children's Internet use, including checking their social media messages (sometimes covertly). In one case the parents had installed software that allowed them to monitor what their child was doing on their devices remotely. This difference in rules, restrictions and monitoring is represented by the blue line in the diagram below.

Opportunity to use digital technology

The apparent differences in access, 'spare' time, and rules, restrictions and monitoring between Low and High SES contexts seemed to challenge the general assumption that children from Low SES contexts have less opportunity to use digital technology at home than those from High SES contexts. These data suggested that the relationships between SES and opportunities to use digital technology were complex and that it might be that children from High SES contexts may often have less opportunity to use digital technology outside school than those from Low SES contexts. This is represented by the dark blue line in the diagram below.

Some cautionary notes

The children were not representative of all primary school children. They were children who the schools thought were doing interesting things with digital technology and/or whose parents were willing and able to come in to school for a one to one interview. Clearly, there are children, who were not included in this data, who do not have any access to digital technology at home and whose opportunities to use digital technology outside school are severely restricted.

Children were loosely categories as Low SES if 'on pupil premium' and High SES if they attended a private school. However, data on pupil premium was not provided for all of the children.

The lines in the diagrams above are straight, however the relationships between SES and access, 'spare' time, and rules, restrictions and monitoring were much more complex than this suggests.

This account of the data does not say anything about the level of support that was available to the children and this clearly impacts on the opportunity they have to become sophisticated users of digital technology.


Not withstanding the limitations with the data and how it is represented in the diagrams above, this research does at the very least suggest that we need to be more circumspect when it comes to our thinking about the relationship between SES and opportunities to use digital technology outside school.

The relationship is probably much more complex than an assumption that 'Low SES' means less opportunity to use digital technology at home.

4 thoughts on “Digital technology, SES and disadvantage

  1. Fiona

    As a parent of a primary aged child I'm on the receiving end of plenty of 'warnings' about the dangers of 'screen time' - links below as examples - which seem to be attempting to counteract the 'digital babysitter' trend seen where children use tablets/smartphones more for parents convenience than their own benefit.
    Yet, where do parents get guidance from about how we could be using these same devices for more beneficial reasons? Some schools recommend ideas for using ICT at home, but more often than not it's a curriculum game (typically Maths, MFL, Spelling), or some kind of home research before/during a new topic.
    For interested parents ideas can be found elsewhere, but when the weight of traffic about devices is focused on why and how to restrict them, rather than how to open up usage to more purposeful and powerful things there's a very biased message getting across to the majority of parents - that tech is harmful for children.

    From my playground observations, the less affluent families share devices with children and therefore tend to monitor usage more (even if only through fear of their phone being broken) or tend to restrict or prevent the children using them (thus two different ends of the spectrum in terms of usage and parental engagement with the child's tech use). The more affluent families tend to give children their own devices at an earlier age as an easy babysitter, or tend to have more skills at working alongside their child to do something a bit more creative with it.

    Maybe the divide isn't so much about Digital technology, SES and disadvantage, but about parental engagement with the child and attachment v hands-off parenting?

    Michael MacIntyre the comedian has a great sketch about his children waking him in the morning and him frisbee throwing iPads at them to get them to leave him in peace - there’s an uncomfortable truth in this - that the ‘device’ provides ‘ideas’ about what to do for the user in a way that other objects/toys don’t. Is the device providing direction that the children crave (direction which could be coming from a human/parent/peer?) Is the device a substitute relationship?

    1. PeterT

      Hi Fiona - thanks for commenting. I think the point about the digital divide being about different ways in which parents engage with their children and digital technology is spot on - would be great to have more data about these differences.
      I tend to think we worry too much about screen time - the focus should be on what is happening rather than how long it is happening for (within reason). So I would be less happy with passive watching of TV than with active engagement with friends in an appropriate online environment.
      I posted some advice for parents re digital technology at


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