Why Is Digital Literacy So Often Overlooked?
Parents fear media's impact on their kids' mental health.
Digital literacy builds protective internal strengths no matter what the tech.
Digital literacy is often overlooked as a solution despite the psychological benefits.
Beyond specific skills, digital literacy fosters self-esteem, resilience, and well-being.
We worry about the impact of media on kids' mental health. Why are we so slow to demand the one protective factor that might help?
Whether it's AI, social media, or video games, the headlines are dire about the threats that media poses to our kids' mental health.
In a 2023 Pew Research Center study, parents' main post-pandemic concern was their kids' mental health (Minkin & Horowitz, 2023). With so much concern over the negative impact of media on mental health, why are we so slow to insist that every kid be taught digital literacy when evidence shows that it helps keep kids safe physically and psychologically by building resilience and empowering them with knowledge-based strategies? It's hard to parse through research findings, conflicting interpretations, and the barrage of opinions—especially when you're worried about your kids. It can also seem hard to translate a concept like digital literacy into action when you're faced with an 8-year-old who wants a smartphone or a teenager continually disappearing into TikTok, but it doesn't have to be.
Media makes an easy culprit for all our parenting anxieties. Our worries make us want to fix things. But suppressing them doesn't solve them, nor does it build protective skills. There's no denying that media can have negative effects, but it can have positive ones, too. Controlling access to media to protect kids from social media is like holding a beachball underwater. The fix is temporary, artificial, and unsustainable. When that metaphorical ball of media pops back up, those kids you were protecting have learned nothing about how to deal with the challenges of a digital world—unless they improved their hacking skills. Investing in digital literacy builds protective skills that enable kids to use media effectively and purposefully to prevent or offset problems.
Digital literacy is the knowledge and abilities necessary to successfully engage in or, as Aufderheide (2018) so eloquently said, have "critical autonomy" with any interaction with media or technology. Digital literacy training includes the ability to exercise critical thinking, develop self-knowledge and self-regulation, and build positive social skills.
The effect of digital literacy, however, is much more than gaining a laundry list of skills. Digital literacy skills combine to build internal strengths—feelings of competence, resilience, and self-reliance that can protect against low self-esteem, depression, poor body images, unhealthy attitudes about gender and sex, substance abuse, and violence (e.g., Bahramian et al., 2018) and promote personal growth and psychological well-being (e.g., Stamps, 2023).
Digital literacy increases well-being by meeting well-documented intrinsic psychological needs: autonomy (self-directed choices and evaluation), competence (belief in one's ability to act and overcome obstacles), and social relatedness (emotional connection with others) (Deci & Ryan, 2013; Ryan & Deci, 2017). Digital literacy builds self-awareness, autonomy, critical thinking, and competence by teaching kids to:
Recognize when technology use is healthy and balanced rather than reactive
Take charge of their behavior, empowering conscious choices and prioritizing
Ask questions and think critically about what they see and do with media
See behind the content and structure to identify hidden motivations and agendas
Build social skills like kindness and empathy
Provides strategies for dealing with bullies or inappropriate content
Understand why certain technologies are physiologically hard to put down
Be aware of emotional reactions that trigger negative behaviors, like self-doubt
Understand the importance of boundaries—including personal behaviors, privacy, and content ownership
Digital literacy builds a skillset that increases well-being by making kids smarter, emotionally stronger, and more competent and confident. These are not just media skills but important life skills that apply to all parts of life. So why don't parents demand the funding of digital literacy training when they are worrying about how to raise a child in a digital world? Why don't politicians propose digital literacy as a solution to arm our kids for the future?
So why don't parents demand the funding of digital literacy training when they are worrying about how to raise a child in a digital world? Why don't politicians propose digital literacy as a solution to arm our kids for the future?
I hate to sound jaded, but let's face it. Digital literacy doesn't make as nearly a compelling headline as social media addiction, deep fakes, and other media bogeymen. Digital literacy also isn't a quick fix. You can't just say, "There, that'll do it," and offload your parenting worries onto some new regulation or expectations that TikTok is going to do your job for you. When we overlook digital literacy, we do so at our kids’ peril. We risk them missing out on not just the skills but the psychological growth and increased self-awareness and maturity that digital literacy training instills. We are denying our kids the intangibles that could actually help keep them safe.
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Kind Digital Connector
Smart Device User
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Aufderheide, P. (2018). Digital literacy: From a report of the national leadership conference on digital literacy. In Digital Literacy Around the World (pp. 79-86). Routledge.
Bahramian, E., Mazaheri, M. A., & Hasanzadeh, A. (2018). The relationship between digital literacy and psychological well-being in adolescent girls in Semirom city. J Educ Health Promot, 7, 148. https://doi.org/10.4103/jehp.jehp_41_18
Deci, E. L., & Ryan, R. M. (2013). Intrinsic motivation and self-determination in human behavior. Springer Science & Business Media.
Minkin, R., & Horowitz, J. M. (2023). Parenting in America Today. https://www.pewresearch.org/social-trends/2023/01/24/parenting-in-america-today/
Ryan, R. M., & Deci, E. L. (2017). Self-determination theory: Basic psychological needs in motivation, development, and wellness. Guilford publications.
Stamps, D. L. (2023). The nexus between Black media consumers' racial identity, critical and digital digital literacy skills, and psychological well-being. Information, Communication & Society, 1-17. https://doi.org/10.1080/1369118X.2023.2174789
Author: Dr. Pamela Rutledge
Dr. Pamela Rutledge is a media psychologist–a social scientist who applies expertise in human behavior with 20+ years as a media producer–to media and technology. Dr. Rutledge is faculty at Fielding Graduate University in the Media Psychology program. She develops courses related to social technologies, brand psychology, audience engagement strategies, and storytelling and was the initiator of the Brand Psychology and Audience Engagement doctoral concentration and certificate program and the Positive Psychology and Media doctoral concentration.