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Less 'don't' - more 'how' and 'why'

By Geraldine Bedell, Parent Zone editorial director

Our series on hot topics for digital families in 2016 continues

Part 2: digital literacy

Early internet safety messages focused on the risks of adults doing things to children online. That was a reasonable enough fear at the start of mass takeup of the web – and it’s important still to keep it at the back of our minds - but we now know that online grooming by strangers is extremely rare. The overwhelming majority of child sexual abuse involves someone known to the child in real life.

The second phase of internet safety has been more about what children do to each other: cyberbullying and sexting, for example. Yet adults remain concerned that young people aren’t managing tech as well as they could be, or in their own best interests. This is not because of a failure to deliver the safety messages: children who are teenagers now have had years of internet safety teaching in school and often from parents, too – they sometimes speak with amusement about having ‘had the internet safety talk’.

In 2016, we will see the third phase of internet safety, digital literacy. There’s quite a lot of dispute about what this actually means, but I think it should be understood as involving critical thinking in the widest possible sense – not just digital literacy, but media literacy and social literacy too.

The internet pervades every aspect of life and we now recognise that there are limits to how much we can block or control it because it’s something we do, as much as something we consume. It’s a whole world, which requires children and young people to be both individuals and part of communities; to be producers as well as consumers; and in which they are stakeholders. Digital literacy, in its broadest sense, involves understanding the world around you and developing the skills to figure things out.

In the end, the best protection children and young people can have from misinformation, propaganda, fraud or manipulation is to be able to work out what’s going on. Internet safety information as we have known it can feel negative and nannying to young people and it often seems to lack context. Digital literacy focuses on safety for positive outcomes, instead of safety from negative ones.

So what does it involve? There are various levels:

  • The underlying technology. This may involve learning to code, but that’s less important than understanding how an algorithm works. This is what the computing curriculum is trying, at its most basic, to achieve.
  • Platforms and apps. Why the web is structured as it is. A grasp of the underlying business models. Data collection (see our first prediction for 2016, on privacy).
  • Media literacy. We are bombarded with content: 90% of the data ever produced by humans has been created in the last two years. We all need to become critics now, simply to wade through this stuff. Content and consumerism are increasingly intertwined: we need to be able to discriminate, to ask intelligent questions of the information we encounter.
  • Social literacy. There is evidence that kindness, empathy and good citizenship reduce risk online: one American study found that young people who were rude and nasty to others online were more than twice as likely to report being victimised online themselves. Much of what makes life difficult and unpleasant online – shaming, misogyny, aggression – is simply the result of antisocial behaviour. Bad manners, in other words.

None of this is particuarly easy. It means that the internet is just like everything else. Parenting really matters. An extensive literature review by Harvard University suggested that some children are more at risk online than others and that, in many cases, they are children who are also at risk of victimisation offline. It turns out we don’t have a whole load of new problems, but a whole load of old ones.

But as we learn to live with the internet, to see it as a tool for our children rather than a treat, we are going to have to focus less on the ‘don’t’ messages and much more on the ‘how’ and ‘why’. If all children are to make the most of online opportunities, to be competent and confident in the modern world, digital literacy will be a hot topic in 2016.


Read part 1: privacy and the online world here.

Read part 3: children, mental health and the internet here.


Image by Gerard Romans Camps CCBY 2.0