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What is digital literacy?

By Geraldine Bedell


We can’t protect children from every possible risk on the internet. To take just one example, one in seven children say they have seen a sexual image online in the last year. 

Risks can be minimised in ways that are right for the age of your child - with filters, by monitoring their usage and so on - but in an age of mobile phones, no parent can control everything their child might see over some other child’s shoulder in the playground. When children are constantly on social networking sites, it’s likely that older ones at least will have contact with friends of friends, people they don’t actually know themselves offline.

Children are less protected than they were a generation ago - or than parents might wish. But not all risks lead to harm.

Digital literacy is one of the crucial tools in preventing harm, even when children face risks – so what does it mean?

In a recent report, Unicef1 identified three types of digital literacy:

  • Technical literacy – understanding computers and having the technical skills to use them.
  • Media literacy – understanding the difference between different platforms - that twitter broadcasts to anyone, for example, whereas on Facebook you can control who sees your postings. And it’s about being able to judge whether sources of information online are reliable. How much can you trust an article on the BBC website or on Wikipedia? 
  • Social literacy – understanding how people behave online and what you should expect of others.

Most parents probably aren’t going to be technical wizards. Very few of us can write code or build a computer from scratch. But that’s not to say we can’t encourage our children to learn to code and, even more importantly, to understand computational thinking (see our article on what matters in the new school computing curriculum).

We may not understand all the platforms either. Each week around 15,000 new apps are launched and some of these will become crazes – perhaps short-lived, perhaps longer – with children and young people. How many parents can honestly say they know the difference between Whisper, Secret, Wickr and Snapchat? (They’re all messaging platforms that make the messages disappear.) But we can still encourage our children to understand that different apps and websites do different things, require different approaches and can be differently trusted.

Social literacy is easier: it's what parents already do. Many of the problems of the internet are social problems; they need social solutions. Children need to understand, for instance, that just because they’re typing onto a screen, it doesn’t mean real people aren’t getting their messages. They need to be as thoughtful and considerate online as they are offline. Pictures they share and messages they send have just as much impact as if they were giving them out in the playground or saying them to someone’s face.

The good news is that bringing up children to make the most of the online world is very like bringing them up for the offline world: we need to make them aware of how to behave responsibly and to be clued up – not about everything they’re going to encounter, because that’s not possible – but enough to make sensible judgements.


Image; Juan Christóbal Cobo CC BY