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Digital Literacy and Citizenship Is Part of Equitable Access

Empowering kids to be smart online is a vital component of closing the digital divide.

Student using a laptop at home for schoolwork.

As I think about my own experience as a child with technology in the classroom, gone are the days of waiting to play Oregon Trail on one of only two available computers at the back of the classroom (and only when I had completed all of my tasks for the week). That was the extent of my digital media access in school.

Today, digital media and technology play a significant role in how our children learn, communicate, share, and create on a daily basis -- if not every minute of the day.

I had the opportunity to testify in front of the California State Assembly Committee on Privacy and Consumer Protection as they consider important legislation to protect kids online. Given the outsize role that media plays in kids' lives both today and in the future, it has become vital that we ensure safe, healthy, and engaging spaces for them to frequent online.

Access to reliable tech and media is incredibly important for the future of our children's learning, but we also know from our research that kids are being exposed to more hurtful and sensitive situations that we must address. And this exposure has significant implications for their mental health. According to "Coping with COVID-19: How Young People Use Digital Media to Manage Their Mental Health," a recent research report from Common Sense:

  • 69% of Black children "often" (34%) or "sometimes" (35%) encounter racist content online.
  • 67% of Hispanic/Latino children "often" (27%) or "sometimes" (40%) encounter racist content online.
  • 74% of LGBTQ+ children "often" (44%) or "sometimes" (30%) encounter homophobic content on social media.
  • Seven in 10 girls "often" or "sometimes" encounter sexist (68%) and body-shaming (74%) content.

Helping kids cope with what they experience online is just one of the reasons that teaching digital literacy in schools is so critical.

Now more than ever, schools are leveraging technology to provide access to resources, assess student learning, and provide instruction to the widely diverse needs of their kids and school community.

But what does this often look like in practice?

If you have kids, you know the struggle of getting them to put down their devices and make eye contact, let alone pay attention to what you're actually saying to them. You've likely seen social media posts and thought, "Why would anyone post that?" Now imagine being in front of a classroom full of these students. Or even a school full of educators, parents, and caregivers all heavily connected to their devices in similar ways.

How can we expect to effectively teach core content if we're too busy trying to defuse the drama that likely started online the night before? How can we expect our educators to embrace technology and feel confident leveraging all its opportunities if we don't build their skills and provide access to reliable training?

In my world, teaching digital media literacy and digital citizenship is critical to addressing core subject matter.

Children are growing up with the power of digital media and technology to explore, connect, create, and learn in ways we only dreamed of. With this power, young people have great opportunities, but they also face challenges and dilemmas. Schools are dealing with the ramifications of issues like online safety, cyberbullying, privacy, hate speech, misinformation, tech addiction, and digital distraction.

If we are committed to providing equitable access to technology, broadband, and digital resources, then we should be as committed to empowering our kids to think critically, behave safely, and participate responsibly with the digital world -- to become more mindful of everyday habits that are otherwise automatic and "mindless."

In many ways, these media tools were built to encourage this kind of mindless consumption.. As educators and community members, it is our responsibility to help children understand the long-term ethical consequences of the decisions they make using digital media. Especially in our schools.

It is imperative that we provide digital media literacy training for schools to address these critical issues facing children in our fast-changing world of media and technology.

Young people struggle to recognize the impacts of their online interactions. As a result, children are exposed to inappropriate and harmful content that misinforms, financially exploits, and contributes to serious mental health issues.

Innovative digital citizenship lessons can teach students to think critically and develop the habits of mind to navigate digital dilemmas in their everyday lives. Digital literacy instruction equips students, their families, and school staff with the knowledge to thoughtfully navigate and safely engage with digital content. It also empowers young people to analyze and assess the influence of content on their thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. This curriculum has seen great success across the nation, empowering young people to conscientiously interact with the digital world.

Ideally, I foresee a future where our students live in a world where they think before they post something problematic; a world where school administrators know how to talk with students about social media challenges; a world where families feel comfortable flagging distressing incidents online; and a world where we are role-modeling how we should be navigating these spaces together.

We are not just raising the leaders of tomorrow -- our kids are actively engaging in our communities today. It is our duty to act on this opportunity and provide the resources our schools need in this growing connected world

Merve Lapus

Merve Lapus is vice president of education outreach and engagement is responsible for the overall outreach strategy and national partnerships for Common Sense Education and oversees a team that works directly with leadership to impact communities using technology for learning and life.