Digitally Connected Families


The digitally connected families of the world over the last two decades have played a remarkably successful, yet largely unseen, lead role globally in the young’s learning with digital education.

In researching the impact of personal mobile technologies on the digital education of the world’s young between 1993 – the advent of the World Wide Web – and 2016, the lead role of the family became increasingly apparent.

It was the young, with their families, that primarily provided the requisite technology, support and education, not the schools.

In 2016, 3.4 billion plus people (ITU, 2016), nearly half the world’s population, were digitally connected, which is on trend to reach 70 percent by 2022 (Meeker, 2017). Over a billion were young people (Futuresource, 2017).

Few learned to use their current, mainly mobile, digital technology in schools. Rather, their understanding was acquired in the developed, developing and underdeveloped worlds with the money and support of their families. It is time the world – and particularly the parents, the young themselves, educators, policy makers, governments and the media – recognises and builds upon that remarkable contribution.

Critically, it is also time to understand that those families employed, unwittingly but naturally, a laissez faire model of digital education. It was, and remains today, fundamentally different to the highly controlled, structured and linear approach used by most schools. Importantly, they used an approach appropriate for an exponentially evolving digital, socially networked and connected world. Schools in comparison used a teaching model from the Industrial Age, within linear hierarchical organisations that struggled to accommodate the accelerating digital evolution.

The digital education of the young occurred primarily outside the school walls. It took place within a market driven, naturally evolving environment where government had no voice and provided no support. For the young, it enabled learning from incidental opportunistic moments to, in some cases, very focused and intense self-driven learning. It was the young who took control of their learning. Critically, it was the parents who believed in the educational importance of digital technology for their children who funded the technology and connectivity and empowered, trusted and supported their children’s largely unfettered use.

It was – as most are aware – an informal education, largely self-directed, highly individualised, where the learning was invariably non-linear, seemingly chaotic, dynamic, undertaken in context and just in time. It was an approach the young found highly appealing, exciting, relevant and intrinsically motivating. From the outset, the learning took place 24/7/365 and, by the early 2000s, the evolving technology allowed it to happen anywhere, anytime.

Ironically, from the early 90s, the role of the young and the family was bolstered by the schools’ insularity, their worldwide retreat to behind their cyber walls and their purported desire to protect children from the dangers of the Net. The young and their families were left by default to fend for themselves in the 80 percent of learning time available annually outside the school walls.

Tellingly today, many if not most schools still work behind those walls, not recognising, supporting or building upon the out-of-school learning with digital technology. Indeed, France, as late as 2017, reinforced its ban on the school use of smartphones, reaffirming schooling’s general insularity.

The schools that are notable exceptions to this are engaging with families and supporting children’s independent learning because of their own drive to do so, often battling education authority regulations and systems.

Free of the controls of formal schooling and government, the young and their families took charge of their learning with digital technology, continually growing their capability as the technology grew in power and sophistication. Internet uptake figures globally reveal the families of the young led the way (Allen & Raine, 2002; Lee & Winzenried, 2009). In 1999, a comprehensive study of the use of computers in Australian schools concluded that the majority of the students who have the basic skills developed them at home (Meredyth et al, 1999). That was happening naturally and largely unseen globally.

As the young evolved their digital capability and facility to readily use all manner of current technologies, so too did their parents, as they used the technology more in their work and came to rely on increasingly sophisticated mobile technology.

In 2008, Pew Internet released a study entitled The Networked Family (Wellman et al, 2008) which noted the US had reached the stage where the new norm was for all within the family to base their lives around the everyday use of digital technology. They were working within a digital and socially networked mindset, normalising the use of all manner of digital technologies in nearly every facet of their lives.

According to the study, “…this survey finds that couples use their phones to connect and coordinate their lives, especially if they have children at home. American spouses often go their separate ways during the day, but remain connected by cell phones and to some extent by internet communications. When they return home, they often have shared moments of exploration and entertainment on the internet” (Wellman et al, 2008).

The Pew findings, coming as they did around the time of the release of the iPhone in 2007, correspond with our own, which saw those families becoming the norm across the developed, and increasingly the developing, world in the 2007–2009 period.

The authors, and the 50-plus eminent observers interviewed in the research, had concerns about the title ‘networked family’, believing it did not fully capture the essence of the development. The strong preference was for the term ‘digitally connected families’, in that there were three key components, that together generated all manner of synergies:

  • the ‘digital’ that made it all possible
  • the ‘connected’ that linked the family to the networked world, and which allowed both the nuclear and extended family to employ the technology in all facets of their lives when desired
  • the ‘family’, where all (children, parents, grandparents) enhanced each other’s digital learning and capability

Digitally connected families are thus those where the parents and children use the evolving suite of digital technologies naturally in every desired facet of their lives, that employ a digital mindset and which have, or nearly have, normalised the use of digital. They created a learning environment where the new norm was for all the family to naturally, almost unwittingly, contribute to the ongoing digital learning of all members. How often does one hear, Dad, you can do it easier this way?

In the decade after the release of the iPhone and touchscreen technology, the educational capability and leadership of the digitally connected families grew at pace. As parents normalised the use of digital, became more digitally empowered, embraced the mobile revolution and better understood the need for family cybersafety, so the gap between the digital education provided in and out of the schools grew – with most schools lagging ever further behind.

The capability and lead role of the digitally connected families of the world was evidenced in the last three to four years of the period when pre-primary children from as young as two and three embraced mobile touchscreen technology. As the 2015 European Commission study (Chaubron, 2015) of 11 European nations attests, the families of the young very successfully guided their children’s learning with the technology. They, like the other digitally connected families of the world, led the learning, well before most schools and decision makers understood that the pre-primary children of the developed and increasingly the developing world would enter formal schooling having normalised the use of digital technology.

We are not suggesting for a moment that everything was or is perfect with digital and digitally based education provided by the digitally connected families of the world. There was – and is – much that needed to be done to improve the model. What, however, was apparent was that a naturally evolving global development, a megatrend the likes of which the world had never seen, had successfully readied the peoples of the world to use digital technology every day in their lives had the potential – with astute support – to take their digital understanding to an even higher plane.


The way forward, as we address in a forthcoming publication on the Digitally Connected Family, entails some major rethinking.

For that to occur, governments and educators must recognise that for 20-plus years – at no expense to government – the digitally connected families of the world have played the lead role on the digital education of the world’s young, and are on trend to continue to do so, regardless of what governments or schools might do or desire.

In 1993, schools were given a monopoly of digital education. Since then, billions have been spent by governments supporting a monopoly where learning with the digital technology provided by the schools in 2016 markedly lagged behind that of the families and the rising societal norm and this is on trend for the divide to widen at pace.

While the digitally connected families of the world have been able to successfully normalise the use of digital technology with a billion plus young people, few schools in 2016 had succeeded in normalising its use. It is a reality governments and educators need to better understand.

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Mal Lee
Mal Lee is a former director of schools, secondary college principal, technology company director and now, author and educational consultant. He has written extensively on the impact of technology and the evolution of schooling.

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