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What is digital literacy? A parent's guide

digital infants

Photo: Juan Christóbal Cobo

What is digital literacy and how can you help your child achieve it? 

Parents know that we can’t protect our children from every possible risk in life.

That's as true on the internet as it is in the real world. 

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.

But not all risks lead to harm.

Digital literacy is one of the crucial tools in preventing harm.

So what does it mean?

‘Many of the problems of the internet are social problems; they need social solutions’

Unicef has identified three types of digital literacy:

Technical literacy

Understanding computers and having the technical skills to use them.

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 school computing curriculum) and how to use basic functions of the platforms our children use so we can help them create robust privacy settings and know how to block and report users who uspet or harass them.

Media literacy

Understanding the difference between different platforms, eg: that Twitter broadcasts to anyone, for example, whereas on Instagram you can control who sees your postings. And it’s about being able to judge whether sources of information online are reliable or what's become known as 'fake  news'. How much can you trust an article on the BBC website or on Wikipedia, or on your Facebook news feed?

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. No one can keep up with them all, but as parents we can encourage our children to understand that different apps and websites do different things, require different approaches and can be differently trusted. Use the content on Parent Info to get to know the latest apps and encourage your child to learn how to use them safely, whether it's a live streaming app or messaging platform like Snapchat or WhatsApp.

Social literacy

Understanding how people behave online and what you should expect of others.

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. As parents, we need to make them aware of how to behave responsibly and how to be clued up – not about everything they’re going to encounter, because that’s not possible – but enough to make sensible judgements. And then let them explore, knowing you will be there to support them when they need you.

Further reading

ThinkUKnow Information for children and young people from NCA-CEOP

Parent Zone parent guides Practical advice for parents on bringing up children in the digital age

By Geraldine Bedell

The advice published on Parent Info is provided by independent experts in their field and not necessarily the views of Parent Zone or NCA-CEOP.

Updated: ​May 2018

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