page image

DIGITAL AGE LITERACIES - Findings and Recommendations

  • One of the most effective ways of keeping young people safe online is to equip them with the knowledge and skills to understand and respond appropriately to the risks they may encounter on the Internet and mobile platforms.
  • The same literacy skills that help keep young people safe online are also critical in enabling them to take full advantage of online learning opportunities.
  • The literacies that young people need encompass media literacy, digital literacy and social-emotional literacy.
  • Researchers have identified critical components of these literacies, and many schools now provide some training in these skills, but no widely accepted standards or curriculum exist for consistent teaching of these three literacies.

Educators understand that students today need not only to master the basic skills of reading, writing and computation but must also develop higher-level skills. The Common Core State Standards, which 44 states have adopted, strike a balance between the basics and the 21st-century skills—critical thinking, problem solving and creativity—that every child needs in order to thrive in a rapidly evolving, networked world.37

While these higher-level abilities are important, educators increasingly recognize that young people need additional competencies that enable effective use of the tools of our networked world: today's social, digital media and technologies. Specifically, all students need to develop digital age literacies.

Media literacy refers to the ability to understand, interpret and use different forms of media: books, hypertext, videos, podcasts and much more. These media employ different grammars and vocabularies and require different skills for searching and producing as well as consuming. Media literacy requires users to understand the intricacies of intellectual property, from respecting copyrights to the importance of fair use to the ability to share, with attribution, under a Creative Commons license. Media literacy training started in the era of one-way mass media but has evolved to embrace today’s multidirectional new media as well.38

Digital literacy refers to fluency in the use and security of interactive digital tools and searchable networks. This literacy includes the ability to use them safely and effectively for learning, collaborating and producing. It also protects against network-based crime such as phishing and malicious hacking.

Social-emotional literacy refers to the ability to “understand and manage emotions, set and achieve positive goals, feel and show empathy for others and make responsible decisions.” 39 Educators and researchers increasingly recognize the importance of these abilities in learning in collaborative and social environments online or off-line.

Because so much of today's media is distributed digitally and is highly interactive or social, the literacies described above—digital, media and social-emotional—are becoming virtually inseparable. Together, we refer to them as the "digital age literacies."

Literacy and Online Safety. Academic research and previous U.S. task forces have established digital, media and social-emotional literacies as important components of Internet safety education. For example, after a thorough research review, the 2008 Internet Safety Technical Task Force concluded that (1) the most salient risks that children encounter online are harassment and bullying, not contact with strangers, and (2) that a child’s psychosocial makeup and home and school environments were better predictors of online risk than any technology the child uses.40 These findings highlight the importance of social-emotional literacy to children’s well-being in social environments both online and off-line as well as in connected learning.

Certainly the Task Force is aware of the tragedies of teen suicides and other unfortunate results from cyberbullying. While there are effects unique to the Internet—e.g., rapid distribution and its always-on nature—these crises and tragedies are not limited to online spaces. Whether on or off-line, students need social-emotional skills to cope and thrive both socially and academically.41 Engaging an entire school community in social-emotional learning helps create a trusted environment for learning online and off-line.

The 2009-10 Online Safety and Technology Working Group (OSTWG) proposed a framework for online risk prevention education that includes teaching literacy skills. In its report to Congress, the OSTWG recommended that educators adopt the public health model of Primary/Secondary/Tertiary “levels of prevention” for Internet risk prevention, with the Primary level being basic literacy education, the Secondary level being more targeted education for when problems arise, and the Tertiary level being specific prevention and intervention efforts with young people with established patterns of risk-taking in their lives.42

Unfortunately, current Internet safety education programs have largely failed to provide effective risk-prevention education. A 2012 report from the University of New Hampshire Crimes Against Children Research Center (CCRC) found that many current Internet safety programs “lack (1) research-based messages, (2) skill-based learning objectives, (3) opportunities for youth to practice new skills and (4) sufficient time for learning” and reported that “there is no evidence that the messages will succeed in making youth safer or help them make decisions that will improve their well-being.” The report concluded that “Internet safety” has been presented as an overly “broad and shifting mix of concerns, which make it difficult to create comprehensive program logic around the entire problem.”43



5 Adopt policies to incorporate digital, media and social-emotional literacies as basic skills for living and learning in the digital age.

States and districts should adopt policies to ensure that digital, media and social-emotional literacies are taught as basic skills, not as an “extra” or an “afterthought.” These literacies should be embedded into all appropriate core subjects rather than be taught as a separate course.

These digital age literacies encompass not just the technical skills but also competency in navigating the social nature of participatory media. Much as reading has always been a fundamental skill for successful learning, in today’s world, media, digital and social-emotional literacies are critical to success.

Action O: Adopt open standards and protocols that simplify and promote interoperability of learning resources.

To encourage the development of digital, media and social-emotional literacies, states and districts should develop competency-based systems for recognizing the acquisition of these skills. For example, Autism Expressed ( is an online platform designed to teach digital literacy skills to students with autism. To “help students feel empowered by their new skills” and to reinforce students’ progress, each lesson completed unlocks a “digital badge” that can be kept in a student’s badge library.

Similarly, a program called DIG/IT in the New York City schools uses badges to document students’ achievements in a course that teaches digital literacy along with financial literacy and college-preparation skills.44 When students have the opportunity to learn digital age media, they can open up a new world of opportunities. For example, at one Nashville magnet school, a student-run music label, in partnership with industry experts, is helping transform a low-performing school.45

Digital Badge for "Internet Basics"

Action P: Fund the development and use of online programs and innovative peer platforms to build digital age literacies in adults, youth and parents.

A number of useful resources for teaching digital and media literacies can be found online. Several organizations have developed curriculum materials to support digital literacy training and put them online. For example, Common Sense Media has created a sequenced digital literacy curriculum that goes from primary through secondary grades and is freely available online in both English and Spanish ( The lessons are explicitly aligned with the Common Core State Standards.

The New Media Literacies Program at the University of Southern California offers an online library of resources intended to help teachers incorporate media literacy training into traditional academic subjects ( Its guide to Reading in a Participatory Culture provides downloadable materials that provide “strategies for integrating the tools, approaches and methods of Comparative Media Studies into the English and Language Arts classroom.”

Several tech companies, including Google46, Mozilla47 and Microsoft48, have created materials to teach and provide resources for digital and media literacy.

And community-based programs such as YouMedia ( foster literacy skills by providing young people with hands-on training in the use of media, particularly to support collaboration and creative expression. YouMedia now has sites in Chicago, Washington, Miami, New York and Philadelphia, but most communities still do not have comparable facilities.

Action Q: Research existing state educational curricula that already include digital age literacies to identify best practices and gaps that need to be filled.

Though the teaching of media, digital and social-emotional literacies is far from universal, there are many places where these skills can be learned. In some cases they are free-standing programs, and in other cases they are integrated into the curriculum for other subjects. However, there is a wide variability in how these programs are designed and implemented, and few programs integrate all three types of literacies. It would be extremely useful to look at the experience of programs across the country to determine what is working and where more needs to be done. Scholars such as Michael RobbGrieco and Renee Hobbs have provided useful overviews of the state of media literacy programs in the United States49, but more systematic research will help provide a more detailed account of the field and help identify gaps needing to be filled.

Action R: Ensure that digital age literacies are incorporated in the Common Core State Standards implementation.

The Common Core State Standards, adopted by a majority of states in 2010 to improve the quality of education, do recognize the importance of these literacy skills and the need to integrate them broadly into what is being taught in the schools:

To be ready for college, workforce training, and life in a technological society, students need the ability to gather, comprehend, evaluate, synthesize, report on and create... print and nonprint texts in media forms old and new. The need to research and to consume and produce media is embedded into every element of today’s curriculum.50

As this language suggests, digital and media literacy skills are being recognized as important for a wide range of purposes, including the ability to function successfully as a worker, as a consumer and as a citizen. This recognition needs to be incorporated in the implementation of the standards by state departments of education, school leaders and teachers. They should be integrated into the Common Core and integral to teaching in states where Common Core has not been adopted as well.

Action S: Make digital age literacies required skills for all educators and expected of parents.

If schools increase connectivity but do not shift resources and expectations around the use of digital media, then the connectivity efforts will be wasted. Teachers, as well as their students, need to be competent with digital age literacies in order to help their students take advantage of the new digital learning tools and become active participants in learning networks. This kind of literacy training should be part of all teacher-training programs and be incorporated into ongoing in-service training for working educators.

Parents should also have the skills and resources to help their children bolster digital, media and social-emotional literacies. Children are in front of electronic screens at increasingly early ages. Parents are looking for answers to what is best for their children in this environment. As the American Association of Pediatricians suggests, every parent should develop a family media use plan.51 In that process, parents will want to become more literate in and comfortable with the new digital environment.

Action T: Along with Action Z, integrate risks related to digital life into all existing risk-prevention education programs.

The 2012 study from the University of New Hampshire Crimes Against Children Research Center cited above found that the most common Internet safety education (ISE) programs in the United States “combine messages about any or all of the following topics: cyberbullying, problematic content (e.g., videos of fights, inappropriate pictures), Internet predators, sexting, spam, e-theft and illegal downloading.” The authors of the study note that “most people would find it strange to have a one-hour presentation for youth that covered driving safety, safe sex, the dangers of drug use, and plagiarism. Most of us would think that these very different issues needed to be handled separately using different educational tactics.”

The Task Force believes that the various topics now lumped together under the rubric of ISE (e.g., sexting and cyberbullying) would be more effectively taught as part of existing risk-prevention education programs since these behaviors and risks aren’t new as much as they are taking place in a new medium. Moreover, risk-prevention educators need training in social and digital media and in youth practices with these media in order to integrate digital practices and behaviors into their risk-prevention instruction.

All educators need to recognize the importance of literacy skill training as foundational to children’s safety and efficacy online as well as off-line. As Task Force member Anne Collier has written:

“What protects children online is what protects them off-line. These are: life skills, literacies, and safeguards that are both internal—respect for self and others, resilience, empathy and a strong inner guidance system (sometimes called a moral compass)—and external—such as good modeling, parenting and teaching by caring adults, peer mentoring, instruction in digital and media literacy, social-emotional learning, protective technology used thoughtfully, family and school rules, well-designed digital environments, and well-established laws against discrimination, sexual harassment, bullying and crime.”52

Finally, it is important that children and families who are dealing with the more serious issues and the outcomes from bullying/sexting seek help for social-emotional issues online just as they would in the physical world. School counselors, mental health professionals, therapists and psychiatrists should be a part of the overall solution and help develop the skill sets to move beyond these very real issues that may also impact a child’s educational attainment and dropout rates.53


My company hires people based on skills, and a number of our best employees have no degrees. When we hire, we don't care about the degree but do care about an interest in lifelong learning. Badges would tell us more about an individual's ongoing commitment versus their degree five years ago.
- Jamie Hollier, Anneal
Title Goes Here
Close [X]