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Children’s experiences with digital technologies
Children’s experiences with digital technologies

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1 Digital technologies over the years

This is a photograph of a child using a tablet.
Figure 1

You’ll start this course by learning how the use of digital technologies has changed over the years and engaging with the main debates about the use of digital technologies by children.

In this section, you will focus on digital technologies and children. You will find out how digital technologies changed over the years and how they have influenced children’s everyday activities and habits. ‘Digital technologies’ refers to electronic tools that store, generate or process information. Examples of digital technologies are tablets, computers, multimedia and mobile phones. Digital technologies allow people to access or manage resources such as social media platforms, online television or radio, online games, and virtual learning environments like the one hosting the material you are reading at the moment. When digital technologies are used to support learning then this activity is often described as ‘digital learning’. For example, the use of tablets and mobile applications in a classroom for teaching or practising maths concepts is a form of digital learning.

Digital technologies are evolving very rapidly; children born in 1990 in many countries had no internet connection, used tapes to listen to music, and had no cell or mobile phones. More than 25 years later, the technology landscape has changed dramatically; children are now born in a society where digital technologies are used for work, entertainment and at home. At least one-third of internet users around the world are found to be children younger than 18 years old. Increasingly, more children have their own mobile phone or mobile device (for example a tablet), watch television on their own devices, play games for at least a few hours per week, and use websites such as YouTube extensively more as they grow up. For example, in 2017, 81% of 8–11 years old in the UK were found to watch YouTube (OFCOM, 2017).

Yet, not all children around the world have digital access. In 2017, a report by UNICEF showed that nearly one-third of young people across the world were not online and young people living in Africa were the least connected. Access to technology is dividing millions of children. This is often called the ‘digital divide’. This refers to:

  • whether a person has access (or not) to digital technologies
  • whether a person has (or not) the digital or language skills to access and read relevant material online
  • what devices are used to access technology, for example, the use of a mobile phone instead of a computer may create a ‘second-best’ online experience
  • prevailing economic gaps, for example, children from disadvantaged or less wealthy backgrounds may have fewer opportunities to benefit from digital technologies.

These trends are constantly changing and this is due to the development of new digital technologies and resources, and children who are willing to adopt or ‘immigrate’ to new technologies, social media sites and services.

Activity 1

Visit the Washington post website below. Hover over the graphs to see details of technology use per year. What ‘tech world’ did I grow up in? [Tip: hold Ctrl and click a link to open it in a new tab. (Hide tip)]

(Note that this source may not be accessible for those using screen-reader software.)

Note down below what technologies were popular when you were a child. Do these trends match your actual childhood experiences with digital technology?

In this activity, you should reflect on your own experiences and note down:

  • the digital technologies you remember using when you were a child and at which age
  • whether these agree with the trends shown in the Washington post website, and, if not, explain why
  • how you used to spend your free time as a child:
    • did you use any digital technologies?
    • which ones did you use?
    • how did you use these and how often?
    • did you have any restrictions?
To use this interactive functionality a free OU account is required. Sign in or register.
Interactive feature not available in single page view (see it in standard view).


Your participation in this activity has hopefully pointed to the varied uses of digital technologies over the years and emphasised how children’s habits and activities are constantly changing. You may have noticed changes in the time children spent playing outside or outdoors (e.g. Kennedy, 2018) and related this to increased screen time, that is time interacting with a screen. Yet, you should be careful not to make simplistic interpretations of such relationships; you should try to understand and interpret a phenomenon considering multiple factors. For example, changes to the time children spent playing outdoors may relate to or be explained by changing parents’ attitudes, such as ‘fears of strangers’ and childcare organisations being concerned of legal actions should a child be hurt on their premises, that may limit the time children spent outdoors.