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Digital Literacy – What Is It and How Can We Keep Kids Informed and Safe in This Digital World?

Most of us think of ourselves as digitally “literate.” We know how to search for information; we have at least one email account; we are on a few social media platforms, and we know how to look for products or services that we may want to purchase through online sources.

Even as technology continues to evolve, those with digital literacy make efforts to keep up with that technology so that they can remain literate. Consider just the examples of using chatbots, or video streaming, or Zoom meetings during the current pandemic. There is a learning curve, higher for some than for others. But with each new technology designed and mastered, the digital literacy of individuals increases.

Importance of Digital Literacy

For students, parents, teachers, and workers, digital literacy is not an option. Learning in the classroom has gone digital in many ways; communication has gone digital; quick access to information is demanded in today’s workplace; digital literacy allows businesses to market the value of their products and services to an increasingly online consumer.

Consider just the advantages for high school and college students who are charged with writing good research papers by most of their instructors. Traditionally, this process meant hours in the library, physically going through card catalogs, finding the right books and journals, and then pouring through them to take their notes. Today, their digital literacy means that they can access their resources online, review them far more quickly, and choose those that will best meet their needs to produce those essays and papers.

With Digital Literacy Come Any Number of Challenges, Especially for Parents and Teachers

Many kids are more digitally literate than their parents or teachers. In fact, when these adults experience difficulties with their devices, they often turn to kids for help.

A second challenge is that parents and teachers are incredibly busy these days. Parents may be working from home while their kids are in school online. Teachers face the challenges of connecting with their students online or in hybrid situations and attempting to deliver the very best educational experiences possible to help them master the concepts and skills they must. All of this means that they are not spending the time they may need to monitor their kids’ digital activities. For busy parents, in fact, kids’ digital devices become a type of childcare while they are so involved in their work tasks.

Which brings us to the third challenge – helping kids access the information they need from reputable sources, ensuring that they get the appropriate entertainment they want, and keeping them safe at the same time.

Let’s unpack each of these elements of the third challenge - solutions to these will require that parents and teachers spend some initial time, but ultimately will allow them to ease some of the busyness of their lives.

1. Helping Kids Find Credible Information

While elementary-age students are not writing research papers, it is the time for them to learn about finding sources of information on the Internet and how to determine the credibility of those sources. This is ongoing learning that must become more sophisticated as kids move into adolescence and beyond.

Students must ask themselves who wrote and published what their search pulled up. There is a big difference between content published in National Geographic, Forbes Magazine, The Journal of Pediatric Medicine, a variety of newspapers, and, of course, social media. Sometimes journalists who write for newspapers have biases. Even within social media, there are differences between such sources as LinkedIn and Twitter.

Who are the authors of such content, and what are their backgrounds?

Students should also look at the age of the information, and, if the writer is using links to other sources, what are those sources? It takes experience and practice for students to become critical thinkers regarding the source material they find credible.

Students should never just search for and use one source of information, even if it seems credible. The exception, of course, would be a scientific journal that always includes the educational background of the author of a piece of published research.

Over time, and with enough practice, students will learn the biases of information and news sources. If, for example, a college student is writing an opinion piece on the Senate filibuster today, a left-leaning author/publication will provide all sorts of reasons why it should be abolished. A right-leaning author/publication will probably have the opposite view. And these views will change depending upon which political party holds the majority in the Senate at the time.

Students should also look for domain names – com, org, net, edu, gov, etc. These are good clues as to where the information comes from.

Another key lesson is never to use a single source for information. And the first results in a Google search may not bring up credible information, only the most popular (although Google is getting better at this now).

Consider teaching students to use fact-checker websites too. While there are a number of them, some are better than others. If students do use such sites, they should always check more than one.

There is no question that the Internet is filled with an ocean of information. Students will have to become life-long learners, because the spread of misinformation, and the technology that promotes it, only grows. Check and double-check sources; research authors or posters; rely on sources that are known to be credible. As kids get better at their own critical thinking, parents and teachers will have to spend less time guiding them through this process.

2. Keeping Kids Safe

When kids are young, it’s much easier to keep them safe as they use their devices to explore and play. And there are some key statistics based upon a survey of parents, the use of digital devices by their children, and how the use of those devices is monitored.

Fortunately, there are dozens of great apps that parents can install on their kids’ devices that will do any number of things:

  • Set times for use and non-use

  • Block unsafe or questionable websites

  • Monitor all sites visited

  • Monitor activity on social media websites

  • Control passwords and have access to them

  • Know a child’s physical location at any time

As kids move into adolescence, they will want more freedom and independence regarding their device use. Continued monitoring is an individual parental choice, of course, as they judge the maturity levels of their kids. Regardless, however, there are conversations that parents must have with their kids regarding Internet safety.

  • Anything posted online, especially on social media, can be there forever. Any number of college students have discovered this when potential employees have accessed their accounts and discovered disturbing posts, comments, and such. Kids must be smart about their online conversations

  • Sharing any kind of private information is strictly forbidden. Violation means immediate loss of phone.

  • Do not attempt to get private information from others you do not know.

  • Creating strong passwords is a must. Never use passwords that include your name, birthdate, or any other personal information. And passwords should be changed regularly. Strong passwords include a variety of upper- and lower-case letters, symbols, etc.

  • Use on secure websites. These will have https:// at the beginning, usually with a small green padlock icon on the left.

  • Never respond to email or social media posts that offer amazing offers. These are scams. If a kid should fall for a scam, they must let a parent know immediately and change all passwords.

  • Never respond to an email or post or message that tells you there is something wrong with your device. These are always scammers or hackers trying to install malware.

  • Always remember kindness. Internet bullying can have serious consequences, including suicide. Kids should understand that bullying or meanness will result in loss of all devices.

  • Kids of any age must understand that anything suspicious, inappropriate, or uncomfortable from an unknown sender should be reported to a parent or teacher immediately. Don’t erase the content until an adult has seen it and taken a screenshot.

3. Kids and Gaming/Entertainment

It seems like an epidemic but should not be a concern unless it becomes an obsession. Kids who are avoiding other normal age-appropriate activities, whose coursework is suffering, and/or who not participating in usual family-oriented routines are overly-involved in gaming. Setting time limits is warranted, and those can be controlled via apps.

The other challenge with gaming is age-appropriateness. It is up to parents to do the research and determine which games contain too much violence, other aggression, and sexually-suggestive or explicit content. Inappropriate games can also be blocked.

Other entertainment is not as easily monitored. YouTube and TikTok, for example, can contain content that is too “sophisticated” for some age groups. Fortunately, there are parental controls in place that can be installed on kids’ devices.

The Challenges Do Not End

As technology and content continue to evolve, so do more challenges for parents and teachers. Fortunately, technology for monitoring and controlling information gathering, safety, and entertainment evolve as well. The key is to remain vigilant and to continue to use the technology that works best for your family.

About the Author

Dorian Martinis a writer, editor, and proofreader for Get Good Grade, one of the best academic writing services online. He also serves as the technology consultant for this company, as well as other small-to-mid-sized educational organizations, and remains passionate about helping students conduct credible research and sustain Internet safety.

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