The Innovative, Groundbreaking History Of Digital Literacy

what is digital literacy

The defining aspect of the past four decades is the rapid advancement of technology. Across the world, our lives are increasingly defined by our access to the Internet through digital devices.

Yet as the Internet has become more and more a part of our everyday lives, there becomes a deeper question of how we interact with it.

Whether we were adults well before the Internet was such a central part of our lives, or we were born with a cell phone in our hands, how we use the Internet and communicate through it has become increasingly important.


This ongoing problem, which has social, ethical, and cultural implications, is closely tied to the trend of digital literacy.

But, what is digital literacy anyway?

What Is Digital Literacy?

In the past two decades, the concept of digital literacy has become more prominent.

This concept has been defined differently by just about everyone who has tried.

Under the umbrella of digital literacy is a range of skills, mostly involving the flow of information surrounding new digital technologies.

Since we are all surrounded by digital technology, from the richest to the poorest of us, it is becoming more and more important to know how to interact with the Internet and its other users.

iphone in hand

What skills make you digitally literate?

The scope of digital literacy covers skills that relate to the responsible use of technology.

This is an incredibly wide range, but it can be boiled down to a few core areas.

Consider these:

Digital etiquette, which covers a broad range of behavior, involves respecting other people on the Internet.

It means realizing that the username and avatar represent a real person.

It also means realizing that everything on the Internet comes from somewhere. That means whatever you share, sources you use, bullying you partake in, all have an effect on someone, somewhere.

On the other end of digital etiquette is content curation.

Content curation is being aware of what you put on the Internet, and how it can spread. It's knowing that whatever you put out cannot be brought back in, and can often be tied to you all too easily.

An important part of the future of digital literacy is how it can contribute to success.

The Internet is a pathway for many to pursue their passions, to earn an education, to connect with life-changing opportunities.

Constructive and safe use of digital devices starts with being a decent person. There is no end to where it can take you.

students studying using laptops

How is it different from traditional literacy?

One of the biggest misconceptions about digital literacy is that it has anything to do with traditional literacy — that is, reading and writing.

Many consider digital literacy to be the ability to use critical thinking to sort out unreliable sources on the Internet.

And this is important, it's true.

But that's not any different from what students have been needing to do for traditional sources for centuries.

Thinking of digital literacy in terms of traditional literacy is doing a disservice to both.

Kids that aren't traditionally literate, who don't know how to read deeply or use scientific reasoning, can't use the Internet in place of those skills.

Digital literacy is so much more.

It takes aspects of traditional literacy, emotional literacy, and social literacy to create a new sort of environment.

It's one where sources need to be scrutinized, where you can interact with anyone in the world, where deep secrets can easily be put on display.

So instead of defining digital literacy as a replacement or a challenge to traditional literacy, think of it as complementary. Define it on its own terms.

study table with books laptop pencils and iphone

Looking towards the future of literacy

The concept of the changing face of literacy has been around at least since the turn of the century.

Marc Prensky, an education reformer, divided generations based on their digital experience into “digital natives” and “digital immigrants.”

“Digital natives” are those who grew up in and around technology. They learn through multitasking and are accustomed to instantaneous information.

There is a deep-seated divide between these younger natives and the older “digital immigrants,” who have to adapt and adjust to new media and streams of information.

But that's not all:

Prensky argued that students of the 21st Century don't just use different technology to learn — there's a fundamental difference in how they think and process information.

This creates a teaching gap between older “immigrants” and younger “natives.”

But Prensky's thinking, even 20 years ago, was ahead of its time.

He argued that “Future” content, which includes software and hardware, robotics, and other similar concepts, are not complete on their own.

They come alongside the ethics, politics, sociology, and new language that develop and go along with new technology.

man studying with laptop and phone on the table

Digital Literacy By Generation

Digital literacy didn't exactly start with computers. Sure, being skilled in a coding language is a type of literacy.

But digital literacy encompasses much more than that.

Digital literacy started to be important a bit later, as people started sharing information across computer networks.

However, the Internet wasn't always around. Even in the past few decades when it has existed, our methods of interacting with it have developed rapidly.

As sharing information changed, so did what digital literacy looked like for each new generation.

Just to be clear, this is who we mean when we talk about Baby Boomers, Generation X, Millennials, and Generation Z:

The Beginning Of Digital Literacy

Digital literacy started once people began to share information across computer networks. In the early days of computers, this took the form of bulletin board systems or BBSes.

In these days, everyone who used a computer was “literate” in the sense that they had to be skilled in computers. They weren't quite household objects yet, more like tools for scientists and hobbyists.

Here's how that changed:

BBSes let people communicate, share files (slowly), and even play very basic games together.

BBSes took a pretty significant degree of technological know-how, but they forecast an era where everyone communicated via the Internet.

In fact, it was the Internet itself that ended the age of the BBS.

As communicating with people became commonplace, the prevalence of real digital literacy grew.

But a lot of people, whether they grew up well before the Internet, or completely entrenched in it, are still unsure how to be digitally literate.

Online Responsibility For Pre-Internet Adults

The trickiest thing for pre-Internet adults — Prensky's “digital immigrants” — is separating technological capability from digital literacy.

It goes something like this:

Baby Boomers, who were born around 1946 to 1964, are quite a bit less likely to have broadband internet at home than Generation X or Millennials.

They are also less likely to use forms of technology like smartphones and tablets, or social media.

So for Boomers, digital literacy isn't so much learning about the politics or ethics of the Internet and digital devices. It has a lot more to do with just learning how to use it.

In fact, there's an interesting rift growing between members of this older generation.

Many don't use the Internet at all and think that it is largely irrelevant to them. A lot of Boomers would rather communicate via traditional channels.

But plenty of others use the Internet to stay relevant. This may be at work or in their everyday lives.

Lots of older people use digital communication to stay in touch with their friends and family (and to connect with their tech-savvy grandkids).

Resisting digital literacy, however, is crippling to those who choose it.

It widens the generation gap between young and old. And it can also restrict their contact with the outside world.

With only traditional channels of communication, anti-tech Boomers limit themselves to old news and social isolation.

Adapting to new forms of tech and communication is important for Boomers, even those in the later years of their lives.

Continuing education for Gen X-ers

While many look to Millennials, or Generation Y, as the first digital generation, it is the generation that came before which paved the way.

Generation X, situated in between Baby Boomers and Millennials, have something of a “digital dual citizenship.”

Here's why:

After spending the first years of their lives in the relatively tech-free environment of their parents, their teens were filled with a boom of digital technology.

Generation X watched change happen firsthand, being more-or-less thrown into the new Digital Age.

Computers, which at their birth were room-sized contraptions, could be shipped in boxes by the time they joined the workforce.

While they adopted technology quickly and use it as readily as any later generation, they had to fight against older generations who were resistant to new approaches.

Gen X-ers can appreciate the power of technology, but they are old enough to have seen it fail.

The dot-com crash of 2000 saw to that. So, they know how to balance their expectations of technology while still taking advantage of it as much as possible.

Where Generation X really excels is in the combination of pre-Internet techniques with new digital systems and approaches.

Having seen life function without digital technology, and seeing how much easier it can make life, gives them a perspective that neither generation before or after has.

Growing up in the digital age

Digital tech has been relevant long enough that there are now two, if not three, generations of digital natives.

One of these generations is Generation Y, also known as Millennials, who were born from the early 1980s to the mid or late 1990s.

Following Millennials are Generation Z, which includes everyone born since 2000.

These two generations are often confused for each other — Millennial is sometimes used as a catch-all “kids these days” term.

But although they have a lot of distinct differences, they are similar for having never lived in a time where the Internet and digital technology was not prevalent.

For Generations Y and Z, devices such as computers, cell phones, and video games were ubiquitous throughout most of their childhood. They are certainly central to their experiences and lives now.

Most children of these generations view being online as a generally good thing. Very few have experienced times when being online was largely a bad thing.

This is because the Internet, for these two generations, is their main form of interacting with, well, everything.

It's like this:

These two generations use online platforms for all sorts of things.

They use computers and cell phones for homework, for connecting with friends and family, as a form of expression.

They share and access information, and find solutions to everyday problems through the web.

When the Internet is their primary form of keeping up with their friends and keeping up with the world around them, it's almost impossible to view it as a bad thing.

Of course, when almost 40 years' worth of people relies on the internet so strongly, it makes sense that most of the concerns over digital literacy come from them.

But some of the most significant advancements do as well.

Digital literacy for digital natives

For those who have grown up in the digital era, digital literacy is something of a first language. We assume Generations Y and Z are digitally literate because they are digital natives, after all.

And although they are much more proficient with digital devices than their older counterparts, their digital literacy is still in question.

In fact, they are often less digitally literate than they think.

Check it out:

The culture of digital use that surrounds Millennials and Generation Z is completely pervasive. There's rarely a time when someone from one of these generations isn't connected to the Internet somehow.

But the kicker is, that culture of use is completely recreational.

It's all about communication, entertainment, and leisure. They primarily use the Internet to stay connected with their friends.

But when it comes to academic and professional purposes, Millennials and Generation Z are lacking.

Higher education institutions often eliminate computer class requirements, usually because students have received computer education beforehand.

But many of their students do not have computer competence, even though they are always online.

A study of students and their professors tested perceived computer skills against how competent they actually were.

Millennials in the study rated their computer competency highly but when the time came, they scored worse than they predicted they would.

Meanwhile, their professors rated themselves lower overall but proved that their computer skills were better than expected.

Overall, just because digital native generations are more proficient in using technology does not mean they are naturally good in professional settings.

The ease of use that comes from recreation and socialization does not translate to the ethics and politics that come with true digital literacy.

business woman showing plans using laptop

Aspects Of Digital Literacy

Although digital literacy's face changes from generation to generation, there are still ways that it looks the same for everyone.

One of the key aspects of digital literacy is being able to evaluate information for accuracy and bias. While this is valuable in any situation, it's especially helpful on the open forums of the Internet.


Digital etiquette is also a huge part of literacy.

Behind every username and avatar is another person, putting their opinions and ideas into the world. Remembering that goes a long way towards conducting yourself properly on the Internet.

And of course, using the Internet is not just about treating other people with respect.

It's about making sure that the content you add, whether its images or opinions, are not something which will come back to hurt you later.

Being able to balance all three of these (and the various ways they present themselves) will go a long way towards becoming digitally literate.

internet sites and applications

Evaluating information

A notable issue which has been on the Internet since its creation is that of fake information. Early on, this often took the form of a malicious download link with a virus hiding on it.

But times have changed:

Nowadays, it often comes in the form of articles that are either entirely false or depend on misinformation to get the point across.

Being able to tell when information is untrue, or at least biased, can make for more responsible Internet users and limit the spread of misinformation.

However, this seems to be a learning point for older Internet users, who may have less experience with false information on the internet.

A study examining sharing behavior surrounding the 2016 presidential election showed that age was overwhelmingly the deciding factor when it came to false articles.

Education, race, income, and political affiliation were all secondary to age.

Why is that?

Well, one hypothesis was that older people are less digitally literate than younger generations, as they adopted the Internet later in life.

The good news is that evaluating information seems to be more of an issue for new Internet users. A study of seventh graders in 2005 showed that they were likely to believe a false article from the Internet.

One way to be more discerning of your news sources? You might want to try keeping a cool head while you browse, and read through the whole article.

A study published in Research and Politics showed that people who only read article previews — the snippets that come up on your Facebook feed — tend to think they're better informed than they actually are.

What's more, those that were looking for emotional responses were more likely to focus on previews.

So, remember to let your better judgment prevail and make sure you get the whole story.

woman sitting on the couch and reading news paper with fake news as the headline

Digital etiquette

The process of interacting with people over the Internet is a tangled web of rules, both unspoken and very much written down.

Part of this is due to the fact that many times, Internet users forget they are interacting with other people as long as they have the shield of anonymity.

Other times, it is because the lines between digital and physical blur, meaning your once-online interactions become very personal.

As much as the younger generations find the Internet to be an overall positive thing, it's pretty easy to see that we don't teach responsible use of tech.

Cyberbullying and public shaming are prevalent on social media, both on a public and private scale.

The numbers are proof:

Worldwide, around 62 percent of children have had negative experiences online.

And out of kids on social media, 74 percent have dealt with some sort of meanness or unpleasantness, most often out of interaction with their peers.

A big part of this is because tech no one teaches tech. The vast majority of our digital interactions are purely independent.

Anyone who is over 13 and has a smartphone can use Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, or Snapchat, and there are definitely not classes on how to use these platforms in high school.

But everyone on social media, regardless of age, needs to be taught how to treat others with respect and kindness just like they are for physical interactions.

This is a part of digital literacy that users often overlook. Many focus on using digital tech in professional spaces but forget that social interactions on the Internet are mostly self-taught.

Web users, whether parents, friends, or family, can hold others accountable to treat others online the way they should be treated in real life.

suit formal wear

Content curation

The sad truth about the Internet is that, despite our best efforts, there will always be someone out there looking for a new way to take advantage of you.

Because of this, one of the third keys to digital literacy is content curation. Content curation is the practice of regulating what you put out into the Internet.

The first thing to teach new Internet users is that information on the Internet doesn't go away.

It could be an embarrassing picture or an embarrassing opinion from youth. Either way, someone could pull it back up after years of dormancy.

But embarrassing (or, potentially, career ruining) social media posts are not the most of your troubles when it comes to oversharing on the Internet.

Giving away too much information can make you an easy target for hacking and other cybercrime.

It's all too easy to give away too much information on the Internet. This could lead to something relatively benign, like your Twitter account sending spam to your friends.

But that's not all:

It could also lead to someone accessing your credit card and sharing it on Facebook for anyone to use.

Curating the things you share on social media isn't limited to content about yourself.

Parents might share too much about their children, or you may end up mentioning something about a loved one that they would rather keep private.

Going Deeper Into Digital Literacy

Of course, these three aspects of digital literacy are very broad. While they may not emphasize some of the finer points, they encompass a core set of skills needed to maneuver through the modern Internet.

One point that may fall under content curation, is security. Many people are happy with their password process and think they are secure.

Sadly, it is often not enough.

A recent study used an algorithm that could accurately guess 73 percent of passwords in just 100 guesses.

It does this by using public information to guess things about you, like your pets names or graduation year to hone in on what your likely passwords are.

Digital literacy is an evolving discipline, just like the medium it uses.

digital security entering user name and password

The Global Reach Of Digital Literacy

Just like the Internet, the importance of digital literacy is a worldwide phenomenon. It is far from limited in its scope or its use.

While most people will be content to use the Internet for personal or professional purposes, the youngest generation is using the Internet for truly world-changing ends.

using internet to communicate

Using the Internet to change the world

Technology is full of potential as a tool for youth to succeed in a modern, interconnected world.

The presence of technology everywhere in the world is a great advantage for children in conflict zones.

It allows them to access high-quality educational tools and content where they otherwise might not be able to.

Mobile technology also allows migrants to access information and contact their loved ones even during travel.

And having technology at your fingertips helps in an emergency. You can reach help or access cash even when otherwise cut off.

And there's more:

Digital literacy is also a powerful tool for social organization.

Both the younger and older generations are using the Internet to create social change.

Members of Generation X often make use of their own experiences adopting tech into their lives. By drawing from this, they help older digital immigrants make full use of the technology that is available.

Meanwhile, members of Generations Y and Z take a more active role in creating the change they want to see in the world.

By organizing peers and spreading their message on social media, young digital natives are making their mark with the defining aspect of their lives.

What does digital literacy mean to you? Do you consider yourself to be digitally literate? Share your thoughts in the comments.


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