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What IS Digital Literacy? The Road That Leads to Everywhere

Updated: Jun 26, 2022

Most people use technology more hours per day than they sleep, yet there is no general consensus on what it means to be a “literate” user of our devices. The term “digital literacy” is bandied about and even those of us who work in this field have different understandings of it.

We like this definition put forth by Canada’s MediaSmarts:

"Digital literacy is a wide variety of ethical, social, and reflective practices embedded in work, learning, leisure, and daily life."

Dr. Pamela Rutledge, my Cyberwise Chat partner, says digital literacy about human behavior and she's right (as usual!). And since so much of our behavior these days is online, it's no longer possible to ignore its importance. Digital literacy is, after all, the road that leads to everywhere.

Why Is It Also The Road Less Traveled?

During the pandemic, young people spent more time with screens than ever before, and there are no signs of this decreasing. Yet, as they headed back into classrooms, students were generally met with the same education they'd received before COVID. Most are being taught “traditional literacy” (how to read and write). But that often overlooks where they actually “read” (online), how they "write" (they post), and the nature of the platforms where they do both (very public spaces where everything is permanent).

Additionally, online misinformation, disinformation, disturbing and graphic content is just a click away (or less!) and youth unarmed with a digital literacy skills are more likely than others to believe information designed to mislead, fall into rabbit holes created by algorithms, or to consume just plain old junk. What they encounter online might influence their beliefs, end up in the papers they write, or worse, get spread to and be spread again by unsuspecting peers.

An international study from the OECD Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) finds that just nine percent of 15-year-olds can distinguish facts from opinions. And the report, "Teaching Cyber Citizenship: Bridging Education and National Security to Build Resilience to New Online Threats," illustrates the urgent need for a literacy update with this example:

"Imagine a world in which a young student is looking at a computer screen and sees false information on YouTube, Facebook, Instagram, TikTok, or some not yet invented social media platform. Perhaps it is a conspiracy theory pushed by a foreign government or an extremist group, seeking to recruit her or cause harm to our democracy. Or it might be a veiled advertisement, seeking to induce her to buy some shoddy product or steal her personal information. Or maybe it is just a rumor among school peers that has run wild. Whatever it is, that information was designed to trigger emotions and lead to sharing, as well as real-world action to her detriment."

This might read like academic hyperbole. But consider this: The 18-year-old gunman accused of murdering 18 people at a Buffalo supermarket was reportedly “radicalized by consuming white-supremist content online.” Bored and alone during the pandemic, he gravitated from browsing on outdoor-sports and gun forums to the white-supremacist material that inspired his rampage.

Would it have made a difference if he'd learned that some information is designed to mislead? Or that algorithms can send the unsuspecting into rabbit holes of misinformation? Or how to verify a source? Who knows.

A comprehensive digital literacy education can’t fix all the world’s problems, but it can help move us towards a world where the next generation might actually agree upon facts, or at least know what a fact is when they see it. So back to the original question...

What is Digital Literacy? It is Today's Literacy.

What is Digital Literacy?

Digital literacy is a broad set of skills that includes and gives equal time to everything young people need to know about using technology safely and wisely—from cyberbullying to copyright law, online safety to misinformation, addictive technology design to reputation management, media representation to hate speech, and too many other topics to fit in this post. It must be taught sequentially and in a way that makes sense to developing minds.

What this means is that the concept of “misinformation” is baffling to a student who doesn't understand how to tell an ad from actual content, how personal information is collected and used, how to read a search engine results page, how they are “targeted” by ads and information, and how technologists build “addictive” design features into the apps and websites they use. And the most important part of "digital literacy" education? It works best when students learn these "human behaviors" NOT from their screens, but with and from their peers, so they can discuss, debate, decide, and make mistakes offline together.

I know. It's a lot to ask over-burdened schools and teachers to find the time for all this. But in terms of time, just think of the the millions of hours young people will spend on their screens over their lifetimes, no matter what career they end up pursuing

Teaching digital literacy just might be the best expenditure of everyone's time.

Diana Graber is the author of "Raising Humans in a Digital World: Helping Kids Build a Healthy Relationship with Technology" and the founder of Cyber Civics and Cyberwise.

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