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Are Tweens Too Young for Digital Literacy?

Computer Class

(Editors Note: This article has been reposted with express permission from the author from

  • With over 50% of 11-year-olds already owning smartphones, tweens are not too young to need effective digital literacy practices to safely navigate the complexities of the digital world.

  • Tweens face unique developmental challenges moving from childhood to adolescence.

  • Hands-on experience, like role-playing, is an essential learning strategy in digital literacy lessons.

  • Digital literacy is the perfect place to teach social and emotional (SEL) skills by emphasizing how they affect interpersonal interactions on and offline.

  • Emotion management and self-regulation are essential to the ability to develop critical thinking and get along with others.

Being a tween is just what it sounds like. A tween is between things, being neither here nor there. Middle childhood is between the comfort and innocence (we hope) of being a young child and the beginnings of maturing into a teen and adult. Environmental change is hard enough, but middle childhood is full of physical and emotional changes. It is a time of growing pains and internal conflict. Both online and offline, being older has the allure of more freedom, but it also comes with the pressure of responsibility and the stress of uncertainty. Tweens are learning to navigate their social world and make sense of their place in it—hard enough without doing it in a world with the Internet. 

Safe Internet use relies upon digital literacy skills. Effective learning is not one-and-done, especially for tweens and teens. The best learning comes from hands-on, age-appropriate experiences that let kids experiment, make mistakes without guilt or shame, and get guidance (also without guilt or shame). Digital literacy skills teach the behaviors you’d like to see in your kids every day, like kindness, emotional control, personal responsibility, a decent bullshit detector, and strategies to deal with bullies and cheats. 

As I’ve written elsewhere, rules and regulations that restrict access without training are parental placebos at best. They run the risk of exposing kids to more danger through a lack of skills and practice, making them vulnerable to hair-trigger emotions and social pressures. Many parents worry that exposing kids to digital literacy will encourage more technology use. That horse is out of the barn.

About 1 in 5 kids in the U.S. has a phone by age 8. By age 11, that number is over half (Rideout & Robb, 2019, Oct 28.). Young kids are plenty aware of social media and its allures, thanks to older siblings, Kidfluencers with their own TikTok channels, and mass media coverage. Online video viewing is the most popular activity for young users. Still, even if they don’t go on TikTok, they are woefully ignorant of the risks and vulnerabilities (except maybe that Mom and Dad are freaking out). Digital literacy doesn’t increase technology use. It does not make kids over-confident. In fact, in our experience, it often does the opposite.

Digital literacy in middle childhood isn’t about using technology; it focuses on how kids manage their behavior and interact with others. For example, here are some lessons from the Cyberwise Digital On-Ramp series for 8- to 11-year-olds, mapped to childhood development tasks. FYI, unless you count watching a video, all these lessons are done without technology. 

From Self-Centered to Approval-Seeking

Developmentally, tweens' desire for approval naturally expands from pleasing their parents to gaining the approbation of their peers and social groups. This shift continues throughout the teenage years. Tweens are at the start of their tumultuous journey of emotional, physical, and social challenges that continue through middle school into high school. These challenges can be amplified by the emotional triggers in social media and the tendency of tweens to act without thinking as they face new emotional experiences, social pressures, and changing responsibilities.

Digital On-Ramps Lesson: Consent and Self-Management. Kids learn the importance of respecting the privacy of others and the meaning of consent. 
Activity: What is something you wouldn’t want to share online?

Despite the near-daily social and emotional drama tweens and teens experience, “Social and Emotional Learning,” or SEL, has become something of a political buzzword because it is perceived as being about identity and culture. SEL, however, is much more basic. It teaches kids fundamental skills, such as being responsible, recognizing and controlling emotions and behaviors, awareness of others, and good decision-making. 

Many skills suffered during the social isolation of the pandemic. Lack of face-to-face contact doesn’t provide much time for practicing social skills. Some kids started the pandemic as children and emerged as tweens, but without the benefit of social experiences that facilitate that transition. Homeschooling was better than no schooling, but for most kids, academic and social growth suffered, and social media use increased. While social media allowed kids to connect with friends, offsetting some of the feelings of isolation, these kids were not prepared with digital literacy skills. 

Digital On-Ramps Lesson: Managing Your Emotions. Kids learn and practice three steps for dealing with big emotions and challenging situations. 
Activity: Imagine a tough situation and how you would ask a parent or teacher for help.

In the ensuing parental panic over increased screentime, there has been a push to protect kids by restricting access. Telling kids they can’t have something will work about as well as that usually does. It makes the activity more rather than less attractive and drives behavior underground where parents can’t provide guidance.

Digital literacy is the perfect place to teach SEL skills. It avoids any confusion of SEL with cultural politics and gets after the skills that will help keep kids safe and serve them well in the long run—on and offline. Developing consideration for others, critical thinking, self-regulation, and a sense of competence build persistence and resilience, qualities more critical to success in life than intelligence. 

Digital Onramps Flyer

Developmental Tasks for Middle Childhood (The To-Do List for Growth)

The psychologist Erik Erikson (1994) was well known for his eight stages of human development, which described the impact of social experience across the lifespan. In his framework, each stage has a primary psychological conflict or task that, when successfully overcome, contributes to a strong sense of self. Erikson called the middle school stage industry vs. inferiority because this is when a child goes to school, learns new skills, and navigates new social environments. When children feel productive and useful, they internalize a sense of self-worth and confidence. However, if they aren't supported in learning new skills, they may develop a sense of worthlessness or inferiority.

Digital On-Ramps Lesson: Keeping Safe from Strangers. Kids learn to recognize danger signs (red flags) and practice strategies, so they know what to do if they see any red flags. 
Activity: Students look at different scenarios and discuss when to respond, when not to respond, and when to ask for help.

Children during this stage become proud of their accomplishments, which lay the foundation for self-esteem. They also develop social awareness and are increasingly attuned to social cues. Children in middle childhood have a more realistic self-view than they did as young children and they better understand their strengths and weaknesses due to more opportunities to compare themselves to others. 

Digital On-Ramps Lesson: Gaining Knowledge and Critical Thinking Skills. Kids learn that anyone can post anything online and get three questions to test content veracity.
Activity: Who posted the information? Is there any evidence? Are other good sources posting about it, too?

Tweens begin to develop an overall global sense of self, influenced by their interactions with peers and family. Children also receive messages from the media about how they should look and act. A discrepancy between a child’s self-assessment and their ideal selves can negatively impact self-esteem.

Tween development sees an increase in emotional lability and complexity. During this stage, they better manage their emotional responses but will still struggle, especially if they feel overwhelmed, socially excluded, or frustrated (Laroche et al., 2019).

Digital On-Ramps Lesson: The Value of Tact (or Being Honest but Kind). Kids experiment with how you can say something that feels mean and how to say it in a way that feels kind and how it feels at each end.
Activity: What’s another way to say: “Dude, you blew that shot.”

An essential component in self-esteem is self-efficacy, the belief that you can successfully take a specific action or reach a particular goal. Self-efficacy is critical to motivation and resilience because having confidence that you can accomplish something motivates you to take on challenges and increases the tendency to try again if it doesn’t go right the first time. Self-efficacy also provides emotional protection from the drama of middle childhood, as this stage of development is also when teasing and bullying can start (Bandura, 2006).

Digital On-Ramps Lesson: Take Care of Your Devices (Responsible Decision-Making). Being entrusted with a device is a big responsibility. 
Activity: What are three things you can do to handle a device carefully and safely?

During middle childhood, positive relationships at home and with friends help children expand their repertoire of social and emotional skills by broadening their social understanding. 

Cognitive Changes & Moral Reasoning

Physical development is a key part of middle childhood. Kids may experience growth spurts, their balance, and coordinating change, and their bodies and brains start to mature. Some will enter puberty during this stage. 

During this period, children also develop metacognitive skills and greater cognitive flexibility. They become more empathetic and become aware that others have independent thoughts and feelings. Piaget’s theory described this age as expanding intellectual abilities to a more complex understanding of the world. Middle childhood represents a shift from egocentric thinking to showing more logical, concrete reasoning. In gaining awareness of their thought processes and emotions, they begin to develop what Kohlberg calls moral reasoning (Oatley, 2018). 

The ability to consider and respond to moral dilemmas emerges as children get better at anticipating the effects of their actions. Tweens become aware of how outcomes affect others and are influenced by the desire to please others and be accepted, compared to a younger child’s focus on avoiding punishment or seeking rewards. 

Digital On-Ramps Lesson: What is a value? Kids are introduced to values as rules or beliefs that are like a compass and guide their behavior. 
Activity: Imagine a tricky situation with friends and think about what you would do and what it would feel like to be on the receiving end.

Like it or not, our kids live in a digital world. Nothing beats parental engagement and guidance. However, you’re kidding yourself if you think kids aren’t going online, no matter what your rules. We teach our kids all kinds of lessons to help them navigate their environment, like “look both ways before you cross the street,” “don’t take candy from strangers,” and “say please and thank you.” Digital Literacy training like the Cyberwise Digital On-Ramp series introduces younger kids to skills that make them more thoughtful and responsible in how they deal with others, on and offline, and lays a foundation for further learning. Just like knowing to look both ways, digital literacy builds kids’ confidence and self-esteem by giving them some awareness and “starter” strategies to build healthy media habits to help keep themselves (and their friends) safe when parents aren’t around.

Check out our curriculum here!


Bandura, A. (2006). Adolescent development from an agentic perspective. In F. Pajares & T. Urdan (Eds.), Self-efficacy beliefs of adolescents. Information Age Publishing. 

Erikson, E. (1994). Identity: Youth and crisis. W. W. Norton & Company (Original work published 1968). 

Laroche, H., Steyer, V., & Théron, C. (2019). How could you be so gullible? Scams and over-trust in organizations. Journal of Business Ethics, 160(3), 641-656. 

Oatley, K. (2018). Our minds, our selves: A brief history of psychology. Princeton University Press. 

Rideout, V., & Robb, M. (2019, Oct 28.). The common sense census: Media use by tweens and teens. Common Sense Media

About the author

Pamela Rutledge

Dr. Pamela Rutledge is a media psychologist–a social scientist who applies expertise in human behavior and neuroscience, along with 20+ years as a media producer, to media and technology. Working across the pipeline, from design and development to audience impact, she translates structures and data into the human stories that create actionable consumer engagement strategies. Dr. Rutledge has worked with a variety of clients, such as 20th Century Fox Films, Warner Bros. Theatrical Marketing, OWN Network, Saatchi, and Saatchi, KCET’s Sid the Science Kid and the US Department of Defense, to identify audience motivations, develop data strategies and hone brand stories. Dr. Rutledge was recently honored as the 2020 recipient of the award for Distinguished Professional Contribution to the Field of Media Psychology given by American Psychological Association’s Division for Media Psychology and Technology.


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