Defining digital technology

Written by Kelly Johnstone, Lisa Kervin, and Peta Wyeth

The core work of the Centre focuses on children ‘growing, learning and connecting with digital technology that is rapidly evolving and changing’.

As a foundation to this, we have drawn on research and literature to develop a contemporary definition of digital technology. This work has been motivated by the need to be clear about what we mean by digital technologies as we plan, facilitate and reflect upon experiences at our UOW Children’s Technology Play Space and other research activities.

Digital technologies are firmly positioned as cultural tools, however there are often broad and inconsistent conceptualisations of what digital technology is. These conceptualisations may not always reflect the diverse experiences children have with digital technology in their lives.

When thinking about the digital technology that young children use, screen-based devices are often the first thing that come to mind. While screens do play a significant part in the everyday lives of many children there are a broad range of other digital technologies that also contribute to their lived experiences. Some of these are more obvious, others less so. Many forms of digital technology are so embedded that we may not even recognise their influence on how children understand, experience and make sense of the world. For example, using the self-service scanner at the grocery store, algorithms that suggest what to watch or listen to next on streaming services, or data dashboards that capture screen activity on a specific device. Our statement defining digital technology is as follows: 

We refer to digital technology as tools, systems and devices that can generate, create, store or process data. The data processing and logic capabilities of digital technologies are enabled through microprocesses that are programmed to perform various functions.

Digital technologies refer to devices such as personal computers and tablets, tools such as cameras, calculators and digital toys, systems such as software and apps, augmented and virtual reality, and less tangible forms of technology such as the Internet.

Imaginary and non-digital technologies, including props used in dramatic play, can help children develop knowledge, skills and understanding about digital technologies. For example, using both digital and non-digital technologies (those that require an external power source such as light tables, torches and overhead projectors) can help children explore:

  • State – a torch has two states, on and off, that are controlled by external input;
  • Systems thinking – a thermometer records changes in temperature which can be experimented with through change in location;
  • Design thinking – ways to use the technology to achieve a particular outcome.

Our aim is for children to develop as effective users of digital technologies while at the same time becoming confident developers of digital solutions to a range of scenarios.

In developing this working definition, we acknowledge the constantly shifting nature of digital technology. We see this as a living definition that will also evolve over time and for us will be informed by the work of the centre, and through how we contextualise and recontextualise understandings in our living laboratory, and of course the insights shared by children as they engage with digital technologies.


Danby, S., Fleer, M., Davidson, C., & Hatzigianni, M. (2018). Digital Childhoods across contexts and countries. In S. Danby, M. Fleer, C. Davidson, & M. Hatzigianni (Eds). Digital childhoods: Technologies and children’s everyday lives (pp. 1-14). (International Perspectives on Early Childhood Education and Development; Vol. 22). Springer, Springer Nature). Doi: 10.1007/978-981-10-6484-5_1

Edwards, S. (2014). Towards contemporary play: Sociocultural theory and the digital- consumerist context. Journal of Early Childhood Research, 12(3), 219-233. Doi: 10.1177/1476718X14538596

Edwards, S. (2015). New concepts of play and the problem of technology, digital media and popular-culture integration with play-based learning in early childhood education. Technology, Pedagogy and Education, 25(4), 1-20. Doi: 10.1080/1475939X.2015.1108929

Howard, J., Miles, G., & Rees-Davies, L. (2012). Computer use within a play-based early years curriculum. International Journal of Early Years Education, 20(2), 175-189. doi: 10.1080.09669760.2012.715241

Johnston, K., Hadley, F., & Highfield, K. (2018). Supporting young children as digital citizens: The importance of shared understandings of technology to support integration of play-based learning. British Journal of Educational Technology, 49(5), 896-910. Doi: 10.1111/bjet.12664

Kervin, L., Danby, S., & Mantei, J. (2019). A cautionary tale: digital resources in literacy classrooms. Learning, Media and Technology, 44(4), 443-456. Doi: 10.1080/17439884.2019.1620769

Palaiologou, I. (2016). Teachers’ dispositions towards the role of digital devices in play-based pedagogy in early childhood education. Early Years, 36(3), 305-321. Doi: 10.1080/09575146.2016.1174816

Rogoff, B. (1995) Observing sociocultural activity on three planes: Participatory appropriation, guided participation, and apprenticeship. In: Wertsch, JV, del Rio, P (eds) Sociocultural Studies of Mind. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp. 139–164.

Unicef. (2021). Growing up in an AI world: How can artificial intelligence (AI) systems promote and protect children’s rights? Office of Global Insight and Policy. Retrieved from

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Our researchers and partners produce regular blog posts and research outputs focused on children and digital technology.