Digital capacities refer to people’s ability to use technologies in ways that matter to them. Our digital capacities are always in flux: our individual and societal-level needs and interests constantly change, as do technologies and infrastructures.

In our study, we found that Australians develop their digital capacity by drawing on their social connections and by showing resilience in terms of how they understand and address needs and risk.

Our digital capacities dashboard was developed with an understanding that social life is made up of four key domains; economy, ecology, politics and culture. The dashboard assesses key competencies across these domains.

Below we present data and key findings from our 2016 national study of Australian Digital Capacities.


About Digital Capacities

Digital technology is an increasingly critical part of everyday life. We are investigating how people connect, participate, work, learn and stay safe using digital technologies. Our research is particularly interested in the ways families, communities, institutions, governments and other networks support people to engage with digital devices, content, media, and infrastructure, and in turn how these interactions influence how people relate to each other.

Digital life


By “digital capacities”, we mean the abilities of people to use technologies in ways that are meaningful to them and helpful to others. This includes a broad range of skills: from specific abilities, such as how to upload an image to a website, through to general ways of using technology to connect with other people, maintain health, find employment and learn more about the world.

Digital life


Digital technology evolves at a rapid pace. It is important to build an understanding of both the reasons why people adopt certain technology and the ways in which they use it. We wanted to determine why certain digital platforms become meaningful in people’s lives. In our project, we wanted to know more about how digital technologies are assisting families to function in their everyday lives. Our research questions included: how do digital capacities help to build opportunities for families and assist them to achieve their aspirations? what challenges does the digital world set in motion for things like intergenerational relationships and parenting? How might the use of technology improve social connections and a sense of community? How might we build confidence in children and young people to use technology safely and to be resilient in the digital world?

Public Unveiling of ENIAC - http://www.computerhistory.org/timeline/1946/#169ebbe2ad45559efbc6eb3572043c44



Australian families are avid users and adapters of technology. We looked to study the ways their digital capacities are expanding and developing.

Digital life


In order to gain some insights into these types of questions we conducted eight in-depth family interviews with families from a diversity of backgrounds to build a picture of the types of issues affecting Australian families’ technology use. From there we developed a survey instrument using existing measurement tools that matched our original questions, while also including new questions based on the discussions we had in our family interviews. The survey was piloted with approximately 20 test respondents and administered by a panel provider online. We requested the survey provider provide a panel broadly representative, in terms of age groups, gender and geography, of the general population aged 12 and over usually residing in Australia. Geographic considerations included an urban/rural distinction within each State. The survey was completed by 2073 participants.

Attribution to http://www.computersciencelab.com/ComputerHistory/HistoryPt4.htm


We grouped our findings by four critical digital capacities:

  • Competencies are the skills and abilities that individuals possess for using digital technologies.
  • Interests refer to the considerations that motivate individuals to use digital technologies.
  • Resilience covers the responses to risks and harms that individuals experience when using digital technologies, and how they manage these risks.
  • Connectedness refers to the density of interaction that individuals have with others, both online and offline as they develop and use their competencies.

Click on the arrow to the right to read more about our findings in each of these key areas.

Competencies, in Words

The advent of social media as an important context in which families can maintain connection with each other, their friends and their communities is impacting on the intergenerational take up of digital technologies. Families reported many instances in which family members support one another to experiment with new technologies and platforms and to acquire new skills. However, digital media can also be a source of intergenerational tension. As different generations build their digital capacities, family dynamics are emerging around who the technology experts are in the family. In particular, gender plays a key role in defining who is a technology expert, with men or boys much more likely to take on this role. This raises questions about how those who have less confidence might be supported to enjoy the benefits of online engagement.

It’s no difficult for me if sometime I don’t know something, I try to do for different way and then I do. Yeah, because sometimes I saw my children that they do that, they try with this, with that, and then they find the correct way. Then I do the same. I try to do one way or check another way and then I can find. I say Oh there, it’s Ok. (Migrant Mother, 50)

Competencies, by Numbers

Australians report a high level of competency across all activities. Sending and receiving emails, bookmarking a website and connecting to a wifi network scored the highest with 8 in 10 Australians finding these tasks to be easy or very easy to complete. Understanding the language that others use online and blocking unwanted adverts or junk mail were reported as more difficult activities: while the majority (52-55%) find those to be easy, more than 1 in 10 finds it difficult or very difficult. Despite the high level of competence reported by respondents in each of the 17 activities there were a small percentage of respondents who reported each of these activities as difficult or very difficult.

Interests, in Words

Identity factors structure how digital technology is imagined and practiced. In families the digital capacities of different members of a family are often perceived and organised around factors of gender, cultural background, work histories and age. The issues associated with these factors play a key role in family members’ capacity to leverage the potential of technology; family members have differing levels of confidence when it comes to digital technology. Recognising that peoples’ personal interests and identities play a significant role in their dispositions towards the digital world is important in helping to realise their potential as digital participants.

Well I’d like people to sit down and show me, step by step. But they say ‘Give it here I’ll do it’ for you. ‘Oh you do this, you do that’ and then give it back to me and I still don’t know what they’ve done to it. They haven’t actually shown me, but they’ve told me. Got to sit there and show me, step by step. Well what matters to me doesn’t matter to a lot of my family, you know. Like, what I’m passionate about. This is what I’ve really wanted to learn about, you know. (Aboriginal Grandmother, 65) 

Interests, by Numbers

Australians demonstrate a broad range of interests in their online activity. The graph below shows the relative frequencies of 11 different activities related to information seeking. Looking for information about a topic of general interest where answers were provided by Wikipedia, Quora or other informational sites, and searching for prices are the most common activities. Looking for information about concerts and events, and political or societal issues are comparatively uncommon activities.

More than a third of Australians also reported that they find people of a similar age online who shared their interests. In addition learning new things about people with mental illnesses or physical disabilities rated as an important issue when asked about their interests and the types of information they might seek online.

Resilience, in Words

Our conversations with Australian families about the potential challenges invoked by our digital engagement revealed families in this study are developing sophisticated and critical understandings of both the risks and opportunities associated with the digital world. And they are creatively adapting their access and use of digital media to serve a wide range of needs and desires. Although the risks have not decreased or gone away, families increasingly recognize that navigating risk is an ordinary part of life in the digital age. Families also acknowledge that participating safely online is about minimizing the potential for harm through promoting digital literacy and intra-familial dialogue rather than simply blocking content or not allowing children to go online. This demonstrates that families now recognise and accept the digital world as part of everyday life.


Well, I did try to get Asu to put safety things on for the kids, mainly on the iPads and, phone. But they just don’t work. They just find, they can’t search anything and then they just go onto a different device. They just get frustrated and nag at you all the time. It blocks everything. It blocks way too much. (Mother, 42)

Resilience, by Numbers

Most Australians believe that technology use has benefits and risks, while encountering risk online provides important learning opportunities. Online security and safety is a pressing concern for 35% of Australians but for more than half (53%) the opportunities outweigh risks; However, almost one third of Australians are not sure if the benefits outweigh the risks. This is likely connected with harmful events which 88% reported experiencing. In the past 12 months: Most (55%) Australians had seen or experienced something on the internet that bothered them; 45% were confronted with a virus; 44% received unsolicited communication that disturbed them and 17% had their online profile used in a way they did not consent to. To address risks, many Australians take regular proactive steps: 49% have blocked an individual in the past 12 months, 32% have reported problems online and 39% have changed passwords or privacy settings outside of work/study contexts.

Resilience: Harm events graph

In the past 12 months 22% of Australians reported that they had never experienced any of the 5 harmful events we listed. Most (55%) Australians had seen or experienced something on the internet that bothered them; 45% were confronted with a virus; 44% received unsolicited communication that disturbed them and 17% had their online profile used in a way they did not consent to.

Resilience: Harm Events Q2

Many Australians take regular, active steps to address risks: 49% have blocked an individual in the past 12 months, 32% have reported problems online and 39% have changed passwords or privacy settings outside of work/study contexts.

Connectedness, in Words

Social media have become a widely accepted part of the ways Australian families connect with other family members and their broader social networks. The overwhelming majority of families value social media as a means to promote family and friendship networks in sustainable and positive ways, demonstrating significant skill in navigating social media and participating safely. By contrast, though, they often face challenges with other dimensions of online life, such as paying bills, interfacing with community and government institutions, and understanding how to use technology to support children’s learning. In the majority of cases, families use digital media to sustain strong and positive intra-familial relationships. Those families who demonstrate sound digital capacities use digital media to communicate with and support each other, and to celebrate key family milestones. They also routinely engage in discussion about the role of digital media in daily life; debate and discuss how their family’s values relate to digital media; and share digital expertise across generations.


If you’re beyond a five kilometre radius of where I live then sure, online would help. But if you’re within five kilometres, I don’t want to see you on the internet, I don’t want to see you online. I want to see you in person. But how can it help? It can just keep people … Keep you informed. It can keep you in touch. Photos I think are great. Videos. Seeing someone’s place and face. Facetime is revolutionary, I think. (Father, 45)


I used [the internet] heavily when I was diagnosed [with a serious mental health issue]. I remember about six years ago, when we moved to this house… I just spent a lot of time trying to find out whether there were other people who were having similar experiences to me. Other people who felt kind of the same way. I tried to find out if there were other doctors with a mental illness. And I did find a couple, and I bought a book online by a doctor who had mental illness. Listening to podcasts of people talking about their experiences [was helpful] as well. (Mother, 39)

Connectedness, by Numbers

For most Australians, the internet plays an important role in maintaining relationships with family, friends and networks of interest; family and friends are also critical for supporting technology use. For the vast majority of Australians, across all age groups, the internet is important for maintaining relationships with family (80%) and friends (73%). For almost half (46%) it is important for maintaining a relationship with their partner. Over 90% of Australians use the internet to maintain connections with friends or family members: in the last year, 35% read updates on friends and family on a weekly basis or more often, 29% used online services on at least a monthly basis to communicate with friends or family who live further away, while 56% had met new people online on at least one occasion.

Half of Australians believe technology can promote strong social ties (50%) while 49% say it makes them a more effective member of their community or country. Digital capacities in 2016 are no longer only related to the ‘technical’ skills of individuals. Social connections offer important ways of extending capacities. When it comes to using technology, Australians help one another: 38% have helped someone set up or fix their phone, tablet or computer in the past year.

Findings: Conclusions

This project has focused on gaining insights into the factors that support families to benefit from the opportunities afforded by the digital world while using technology safely. The Cultivating Digital Capacities project, in this phase, has focused on two key areas – Social Connectedness and Resilience – which, both through the research process and the project results, we identified as crucial to individuals’ and communities’ capacities to leverage the opportunities of online engagement.

Our findings suggest:

  • Across Australia, digital capacities are relatively uniform with respect to key demographics such as age, gender and state.
  • However, ongoing capacity building is needed in rural and regional australia. There remain barriers to capacity due to inconsistent connectivity.
  • People are aware of online harms and risks. Yet they also acknowledge that exposure and practice develops resilience towards these threats.
  • Support networks – in families, neighbourhoods, communities and workplaces – are integral to the development of digital capacities.
  • Measurement of digital capacities needs to be fluid, in line with the rapid rate of change of capacities themselves.

Extensive consultation with industry and academics has led us to develop four key categories for grouping capacities together. In the future, further focus on these areas will assist researchers, policy makers, practitioners and technology providers to expand our understandings of the social dimensions of digital engagement and highlight how the digital world has become embedded in the myriad ways we live our lives today.

Looking ahead

We plan to develop our findings from the Digital Capacities Project in two further projects in 2016-2017.

http://anastgal.livejournal.com/503191.html?thread=8717719 - Russia, 1975

Living Labs

We are considering the application of the Cultivating Digital Capacities Dashboard for the Social Living Labs environment, soon to be developed at Western Sydney University with the support of Google Australia.

Digital Capacities Dashboard

We have developed a list of indicators based on a literature audit, existing measures and preliminary findings from the qualitative component of the study. As we look ahead we plan to expand  this list and make it publicly available as a digital dashboard.

Drawing on this expanding database and the iterative process we adopted, a diverse number of groups and communities across a range of geographical contexts will be able to access the dashboard tools we have developed. This will enable communities  to tailor their own design interventions to improve digital capacities in local contexts.

As a measurement tool, the Dashboard will be unique in four respects:

  • Extends existing measures beyond the individual to consider the important role relationships play in the way we all cultivate our digital capacities.
  • Recognises that rapid changes in technological innovation create a dynamic environment and, within this context, highlights the importance of resilience as a strength that promotes safe, sustainable and positive uses of the internet.
  • Targets relational interactions and dynamics, or social connectedness, as critical to understanding the importance values and attitudes play in cultivating digital capacities.
  • Highlights how digital engagement promotes intergenerational relationships in valuable and meaningful ways.
http://anastgal.livejournal.com/503191.html?thread=8717719 - Russia, 1975

Who We Are

Institute for Culture and Society, Western Sydney University

Delphine Bellerose is a Research Assistant with a background in social policies management. She was involved in several community research projects related to telecommunications customers’ experience and  cybersafety for the Australian Communications and Media Authority. More recently, Delphine worked on several projects that look at how the opportunities offered by digital technology can be used to support the wellbeing of young people.

Phillipa Collin is a Senior Research Fellow. She leads a research program for the Young and Well Cooperative Research Centre examining how new technologies can promote safe and supportive environments and promote the mental health and wellbeing of young people aged 16 – 25. Her research interests include online participation, political identity and citizenship, safety and risk, intergenerational and gender perspectives, online campaigns and program evaluations.

Louise Crabtree is a Senior Research Fellow. Her research focuses on the social, ecological and economic sustainability of community-driven housing developments in Australia; on the uptake of housing innovation in practice and policy; on complex adaptive systems theory in urban contexts; and, on the interfaces between sustainability, property rights, institutional design and democracy.

Justine Humphry is a Lecturer of Cultural and Social Analysis, specialising in cultures of digital technology. In her most recent research project funded by the Australian Communications Consumer Network, she worked closely with young people, families and adults experiencing homelessness to study their access to and use of mobile phones and the internet. Her research interests cover digital technology and social inclusion, new modes of work and governance, and communication and public space.

Paul James is Director of the Institute for Culture and Society. He is Scientific Advisor to the Senate Department for Urban Development, Berlin, and has been an advisor to numerous agencies and governments including the Helsinki Process, the Canadian Prime Minister’s G20 Forum, the Commission on Reception, Truth and Reconciliation in East Timor, and the Papua New Guinea Minister for Community Development. His interest in digital engagement comes through his research on the nature of community — local, national and global — and questions of social capacities in relation to the human condition.

Emma Kearney is a Senior Research Officer. Emma has over 10 years experience working in qualitative research and engaged research processes. She has been responsible for the daily project management of the Digital Capacities Initiative.

Liam Magee is a Senior Research Fellow. His principal research interests focus on the application of social methods and information technology to the areas of urban development and sustainability. Liam has worked with communities in Siliguri, Johannesburg, Phnom Phen and is currently working on a digital engagement project in Dakha.

Tanya Notley is a social change communicator, educator and researcher. She is employed as a Lecturer in Internet Studies and Digital Media in the School of Humanities and Communication Arts at Western Sydney University and she is a researcher with the Institute for Culture and Society. She collaborates with a number of human rights and social justice organisations to design communication initiatives for social impact.

Anjali Sharma is a final year undergraduate student pursuing a combined degree in Arts and Mathematics. A recipient of a student research program scholarship she has worked on quantitative data analysis.

Amanda Third is Principal Research Fellow in Digital Social and Cultural Research. Her research focuses on the socio-cultural dimensions of young people’s technology use, with particular emphases on children’s rights in the digital age, the intergenerational dynamics shaping technology practice, and vulnerable young people’s technological engagements.

Google Australia

Sam Yorke works in Public Policy and Government Affairs at Google Australia, with a focus on privacy, safety and security.  She is an accredited mediator, technology lawyer and policy advisor with over fifteen years experience working within the digital media and technology sectors both in Europe and Australia.

Getting in touch

Please let us know if you have any questions, comments, or would like to know more about our Digital Capacities project.
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Cultivating Digital Capacities is a joint project run by the Young and Well CRC, Google Australia and the Institute for Culture and Society at Western Sydney University.For more information, please contact Assoc. Prof. Amanda Third, complete the form on the left, or visit Cultivating Digital Capacities.