Digital technology use in the child, youth and family sector

Digital technology use in the child, youth and family sector

Jessica Smart

CFCA Resource Sheet— July 2018
Cropped shot of a businesswoman using her digital tablet in the office


This resource sheet provides a summary of findings from a survey exploring how professionals in the child, youth and family sector use digital technology. The Child Family Community Australia (CFCA) information exchange conducted the survey in 2017 in response to a gap in the literature about how professionals in this sector were using digital technology for their work.

This study was primarily intended to inform the development of CFCA publications and resources for the sector. An earlier version of these findings was presented at the Family and Relationship Services Australia (FRSA) conference in November 2017.


Australian families are increasingly using the internet to procure goods and services but anecdotal reports suggest social services have been slow to take up digital technology and move online.

Growing internet use in Australia

Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) research conducted during 2014 and 2015 found that 85% of Australians were internet users, with this figure highest in the 15–17 years age group (99%), and lowest in the over-65 years age group (51%) (ABS, 2016). People aged 15–17 years spent the most time online, with an average of 18 hours spent online for personal use each week (ABS, 2016).

Of households with children under 15, 97% had access to the internet, with an average of seven internet-connected devices in each household (ABS, 2016). Almost two-thirds (61%) of all internet users had used the internet to purchase or order goods or services in the last three months (ABS, 2016).

The rates of internet use among Australians have been consistently increasing (ABS, 2014, 2016), so it is likely that current rates of internet use are higher than the rates reported here.

A lack of research in social services’ digital technology use

There is a significant gap in research on the online provision or procurement of social services in Australia. It is unclear to what extent social services are using digital technology and what the effects of this use might be. There is also a lack of research exploring service users’ preferences for using digital technology when accessing services.

In 2013, CFCA published the paper Using Technology in Service Delivery to Families, Children and Young People, which discussed how the innovative use of technology could add value to service provision for the child, youth and family sector (Knight & Hunter, 2013). The authors noted that there was limited empirical research to guide practice and that the bulk of existing research focused on young people (Knight & Hunter, 2013).

CFCA stakeholders consistently identified digital technology use as an issue for the sector in 2015 and 2016 and, during this period, CFCA staff and stakeholders had conversations about the risks and opportunities with digital technology use. These discussions suggested that the child, youth and family sector was grappling with a number of issues:

  • whether and how to use digital technology;
  • a wide variation in the way that different agencies were or were not using digital technology;
  • limited research on the efficacy of digital technology in social service provision; and
  • research and resources that lagged behind practice.

In 2016, CFCA began a scoping process to identify what type of resources on which digital technology topics would best meet the needs of the sector. A literature search was conducted on digital technology use in the child, youth and family sector, which found that little empirical research has been published on this topic. The limited literature was reviewed and a process of targeted consultation with sector professionals and academics working in this space was conducted.

The findings from the consultation further highlighted the significant gap in knowledge that exists. While the consultation identified some examples of innovative digital technology use and some examples of digital technology not being used (or cases where digital technology could be used better), it was not clear if or how digital technology was being used by agencies delivering child, youth and family services. It was also unclear what support existed for those using digital technology or how CFCA could support agencies and practitioners working in this space.

The survey

CFCA developed a survey to explore if and how digital technology was being used in the sector, and to identify perceived risks and opportunities with digital technology use.

Defining digital technology

Digital technology was defined in the survey as social media services, applications (apps) and online services used for work; for example, to record or share information with clients. The survey sought to understand how individual sector professionals use digital technology for their work. Digital technology use undertaken by an agency (e.g. an organisation’s Facebook page) was excluded, as were the use of computers, email and web browsing, as it was assumed that all participants would be using these forms of digital technology for work.

Authors and Acknowledgements

About the author

This resource sheet was authored by Jessica Smart, Senior Research Officer with the CFCA information exchange.


The author would like to thank Megan Carrol and Ken Knight for their assistance with the survey and data analysis.

Featured image: © GettyImages/PeopleImages

Publication details

CFCA Resource Sheet
Published by the Australian Institute of Family Studies, July 2018.

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