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Blog Theories CO:RE at LSE Published: 19 Oct 2022

Digital access: theoretical approaches

How do scholars in the field conceptualise ‘access’ when thinking about children’s digital lives? To answer this question, we draw on the responses from our Theories in circulation consultation with experts in the field who told us about the theories they use the most in their work. We identified three main theoretical approaches for conducting research on access:

·       Domestication

·       Digital capital

·       Digital divides

Domestication theory

The domestication of technology describes a process of media adoption in daily life, particularly within the home. According to this theory, households consume technologies in ways that reflect the family members’ histories and politics. The theory integrates the symbolic and material dimensions of technologies, highlighting how they gain new meanings as they are used in diverse contexts.

Domestication theory, according to Silverstone, suggests that a new technology enters the home via four stages:

  1. Appropriation: purchasing the device;

  2. Objectification: giving the device a specific physical and psychological space in the home;

  3. Implementation/ incorporation: how the device is used and integrated into daily routines;

  4. Conversion: how the new device goes beyond the home environment and starts to define one’s relations with the world (e.g. entering conversations with peers).

Although technology domestication theory is grounded in the home, it can also be applied in relation to other everyday contexts within one’s surrounding world.


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Domestication theory gives precedence to how technologies are rendered meaningful in everyday life – through their spatial, temporal and practical uses. It also underscores how this use is intertwined with culture as an expression of both values and lifestyles. This leads us to the second theoretical approach we identified – that of cultural capital (and its subsequent derivative: digital capital).

Digital capital

Somewhat counter-intuitively, one of the most useful tools for theorising digital access comes from the French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu whose work does not focus on media. Bourdieu does not seek to explain the effects of mass media. In fact, his work does not derive from any ‘effects’ paradigm. Rather, he examines children’s everyday lives and those of their families in terms of an interplay between structure and agency. He sees people as producing their classed position from three available resources: economic, social and cultural capital.

Bourdieu’s theory balances attention to the material and everyday (the “habitus”) across different domains and spheres of life (“fields”). It allows for human agency and the production of subjectivity within a range of different social and institutional contexts of civil life, including the domestic. Conceptually, his theory can extend to the digital realm, whereby “digital capital” is understood as a series of material (e.g. technologies, digital devices) and non-material resources (e.g. digital skills) available to someone who uses them for achieving specific objectives.

Digital capital, within a Bourdieudian framework, is related with the other forms of capital (economic, cultural and social) which feed into each other in a highly digitalised context. In other words, systematic distinctions in social, cultural and economic capital may affect affinity with media. For example, parents help their children throughout their lives via resources such as financial, cultural or social capital. The notion of accumulative advantage suggests that those with more parental capital continue to profit as they get to later stages in their life, increasing their advantage over others. This takes us to the last theoretical approach – digital divides.

Digital divides

The field has developed from looking at single outcome indicators, such as online access to defining digital inclusion as a multifaceted construct. Initially, digitisation was viewed as a way to level existing inequalities by providing access to information, goods and services that were previously out of reach for marginalised or vulnerable groups.

However, quality access to ICTs is unequally distributed following historical patterns of socio-economic inequalities and the term “digital divides” emerged to describe the tenacity of such inequalities that incorporate but go beyond the information society.

Access to the internet and ownership of ICTs was seen by scholars and policymakers as the crucial obstacle to overcome in pursuit of a more equal (digital) society. However, it became apparent that access in and of itself does not determine whether users are able to take advantage of digital connections. Subsequently, the second level of digital inequalities emerged to consider how ICT use and skills were distributed along traditional lines of inequalities

Finally, a third divide addresses the different benefits and tangible outcomes that people may obtain from their use of digital technologies and, above all, their ability to exploit these benefits in order to improve their life chances. For example, digital inequalities are embedded within a wide range of influences including socio-economic factors, personal skills, attitudes and experiences while using digital technology. Hence, the portrait of digital inequality is very nuanced. 

Critical researchers of digital technologies and inequalities may also make use of the theory of sustainable development, which implies that there is a need to pay attention to the information society as a whole ecosystem. If one area (e.g., digital competence among selected groups) is not developed properly, then problems, discrepancies and challenges arise in many other areas (e.g., full and proper use of e-services).

Applied together, the three theoretical approaches place digital access at the centre of understanding the complexity of children’s media interactions and their outcomes.

An empirical example of how such theories can be linked to evidence is offered by the project Net Children Go Mobile – comparative research across several countries in Europe on how children engage with the internet, with a focus on access, use and divides. It presents access and uses by examining various parameters, such as where children use the internet, the age of first use, which devices and apps are used, ownership, along with parents’ use of the internet. For researchers of digital inequalities, this project’s outputs are useful in their representation and prioritisation of the main factors that define access. 

In this blog post, we provided a brief introduction to theories that may prove useful when beginning research into digital access. Selected texts are listed below, and should you wish to read further, please see the guided reading list on access.

Further reading

Bourdieu, P. (1984). Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste. Routledge.

Helsper, E. J. (2021). The Digital Disconnect: The Social Causes and Consequences of Digital Inequalities. Sage.

Lareau, A. (2011). Unequal Childhoods: Class, Race, and Family Life, Second Edition with an Update a Decade Later. University of California Press.

Lie, M. & Sørensen, K. H. (2002). Making Technology of our Own? Domesticating Technology into Everyday Life. In M. Lie, & K. H. Sørensen (Eds.), Making technology of our own? Domesticating technology into everyday life, Scandinavian University Press, pp. 1- 30.

Ragnedda, M. (2017). The Third Digital Divide: A Weberian Approach to Digital Inequalities. Routledge.

Ragnedda, M. (2018). Conceptualizing Digital Capital. Telematics & Informatics, 35(8), 2366-2375.  

Ragnedda, M. & Ruiu, M.L. (2017). Social capital and the three levels of digital divide. In Ragnedda M., Muschert G. (Eds.), Theorizing Digital Divides. Routledge, pp. 21-34.                                                                     

Threadgold, S. (2017). Youth, Class and Everyday Struggles. Routledge.

image/svg+xml art designer at PLoS, modified by Wikipedia users Nina, Beao, JakobVoss, and AnonMoos Open Access logo, converted into svg, designed by PLoS. This version with transparent background. art designer at PLoS, modified by Wikipedia users Nina, Beao, JakobVoss, and AnonMoos van Deursen, A.J.A.M. and Helsper, E.J. (2015). "The Third-Level Digital Divide: Who Benefits Most from Being Online?", Communication and Information Technologies Annual (Studies in Media and Communications, Vol. 10), Emerald Group Publishing Limited, Bingley, pp. 29-52.

More resources on access

Other areas of children’s digital lives in the theories toolkit

Explore further CO:RE resources on theory

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Guest author


Dr Miriam Rahali is a Visiting Researcher at the Department of Media and Communications, LSE. In addition to media, her interests include children, gender, and consumer behaviour. Miriam holds an undergraduate degree from Columbia University, New York, a Master’s degree in Special Education, and a PhD from LSE. She has worked on inclusive education in various roles within academia and the third sector.

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