Executive Summary: The article discusses digital literacy, digital rights, and digital footprints and suggests that organizations should invest in educating their communities on these topics to promote the success and overall well-being of adults in the workforce and adolescents preparing for the future.

Digital literacy in education is one of the most important skills young people can develop. Not only is it critical for the overall well-being of adolescents but also for the success of adults in the workforce. Yet research shows that even digital natives who grew up online are seriously lagging when it comes to their ability to be critical consumers of the technology they rely upon.  

Given this knowledge gap, corporate leaders and tech companies have an opportunity to be pioneers in this area and make meaningful, lasting impact by providing much-needed digital wellness training to members of their communities.  Offering comprehensive educational materials about digital literacy, rights, and the impact of one’s digital footprint to students,  as well as part of corporate training, would help ensure that digital citizens understand how to navigate the risks and thrive in today’s digital society.  Online and tech literacy is essential for career development, legal safety, personal security, and awareness in the internet era.

Below is a breakdown of digital literacy, digital rights, digital footprints, and how being educated in these topics is a crucial part of the next generation’s success. 

What is Digital Literacy?

So, what is digital literacy? Digital literacy is a comprehensive understanding of how to engage in responsible online behaviors and includes information literacy (the ability to use critical thinking skills to spot false information on the internet, make decisions about online content, and successfully research and evaluate content to determine what sources to trust and how to properly credit them).  In the era of viral news, social media, and a ubiquity of uncredited, free-floating posts and opinions it is more imperative than ever that teens and adults possess the necessary aptitude and acumen to assess, contextualize and use the different types of digital literacy they need for the media they consume.

Greater Digital Usage ≠ Greater Literacy

Adolescents may seem proficient at navigating the digital space, but data suggests they are not as informed as one might think.  A Stanford History Education Group study of Gen Z’s ability to evaluate information uncovered an alarming lack of knowledge.  Researchers studied nearly 8,000 middle school, high school, and college students, testing them in several areas, including: distinguishing between a news article and an opinion column, identifying sponsored ads, verifying claims, determining whether a website is trustworthy, and judging when a social media post is a useful source of information.  “Many assume that because young people are fluent in social media they are equally savvy about what they find there. Our work shows the opposite,” said the researchers. “In every case and at every level, we were taken aback by students’ lack of preparation… Our ‘digital natives’ may be able to flit between Facebook and Twitter while simultaneously uploading a selfie to Instagram and texting a friend. But when it comes to evaluating information that flows through social media channels, they are easily duped.”

A 2019 study of millennials yielded similar findings.  Seventy-four percent of millennials failed a short quiz determining whether or not they could spot fake news.  Millennials fared much worse on this quiz than baby boomers (58% of whom failed), indicating the need for digital literacy in education because  younger age and frequent usage do not, in fact, correlate to increased literacy.  Perhaps a bigger problem is that despite scoring extremely low, 88% of respondents felt confident in their critical thinking skills.

This disconnect reveals that even digitally savvy teens and college-educated adults are still extremely susceptible to unreliable sources and fake news. This kind of illiteracy has individual repercussions as well as worldwide implications when it comes to matters like elections, workplace initiatives, and necessary discernment for success in modern careers.

Digital Wellness Network

The Digital Wellness Network is a public-private coalition of corporations, nonprofits and educators committed to mitigating the negative impact of unhealthy technology use by empowering students with the skills to make safe and informed decisions about technology.

Why Does it Matter?

Navigating the internet with ease and frequency has become the cornerstone of cultural communication, and mastery of critical thinking skills within that space is crucial.  Concern about teens’ exposure to media and technology has unsurprisingly escalated since the rise of personal electronic devices over the last two decades, but pediatric research shows that arming young people with relevant critical thinking skills helps mitigate any potentially harmful effects of digital content. 

This skill is also important for the success of current and future professionals. New research shows that within the next five years, basic computer skills will be required by 90% of the workforce, and in the next few years, over half of workers will need to be able to not just use, but build and configure, digital systems—which means the stakes are high when it comes to creating a digitally literate culture.

“The inability to discern fake or inaccurate information is a significant problem, especially among students and recent graduates who are primed to enter the workforce,” said ‎digital communications and research expert, Frank Connolly.  “As our workplaces embrace digital transformation, it’s increasingly important to bridge this skills gap to mitigate its effect on career growth and the accuracy of our collective knowledge.” 

Digital literacy in education will affect the next generation of thinkers, workers, and creatives who need to take advantage of digital communities in beneficial ways. They must fully grasp the art of critical thinking, discernment, and digital law, including how the work they create, curate, and share on the internet might be impacting their work, their digital footprint, and affecting their well-being.  In 2019, teaching young people about online responsibility should be a wellness priority, right up there with other safety instruction, like driver’s ed and lessons on alcohol and drug abuse.

Digital Rights Are Human Rights

Leaders are starting to believe digital rights are essentially extensions of basic human rights, such as freedom of expression and right to privacy.  In some countries, e.g. the UK, internet access itself has even been defined as a human right.  America has not gone that far—though 49% of Americans believe the internet should be a human right—and when a UN resolution passed in 2018 defining the internet as a universal human right, the US was absent from the negotiations. 

As governments and corporations gain more and more access to our information, digital privacy is in a constant state of flux, and the power to uphold digital rights increasingly comes down to the decisions of individual companies, as indicated by organizations like Ranking Digital Rights, which works to create global standards around this issue.  The “slow to action” of many governments in this area makes corporate responsibility even more significant in the battle for international digital rights and puts the onus on corporations to protect privacy and expression.  “Companies can be part of a worsening problem, or they can design and operate their technologies and businesses in a manner that protects and respects human rights,” the organization states.  By evaluating and ranking how big tech companies—and others—are treating privacy, they seek to promote freedom of expression and privacy on the internet and take companies and governments to task for their failure to respect privacy. 

While protection and respect from organizations and corporations is essential to build out robust understanding of the digital landscape, the individual also has an obligation to learn how to keep their passwords, data, and other personal information as safe as possible.  Awareness of identity theft, protecting personal information, and activities like malware and phishing is something that must be taught in schools and will decrease digital citizens’ risk of being victimized online.

We Need a Bill of Digital Rights Because Digital Rights Are Creative Rights

Another major component of digital rights should be a digital bill of rights which involves freedom of expression and creative and intellectual property. In 2006, when social media was on the rise, the Association For Progressive Communications (APC) put together their Internet Rights Charter, which acknowledges, among other things, the freedom of expression and association online.  The APC’s earlier activist material is similar to the UN’s 2018 resolution, which attests that “the same rights that people have offline must also be protected online.”  The ability to share opinions and information, and freely associate with any individual or group, is just as much a human right online as it is offline.

Online channels provide powerful opportunities to promote creative work.  Digital rights also include the right to attribution when personal creative work is shared—and learning how to attribute and give credit when sharing the work of others. There is a difference between created work and curated work, knowing the difference will prevent people from accidentally violating copyright laws or committing plagiarism. 

“Whether they are born digital or returning to college, many students don’t know how to read and interpret information,” explains Julie Todaro, Ph.D., president of the American Library Association. “They need to understand how to use sources, and one of the most important things is how to use other people’s works without plagiarizing.”

Leaving a Digital Footprint

The internet is the most efficient tool we have for gathering information, maintaining community, and exchanging creative work, but it can also leave an unwanted trail for users who aren’t carefully monitoring their online behavior.  A digital footprint is a term for an online archive of information and records that naturally form about a person, as a result of their internet activity.  A digital footprint can include website visits and search history, emails sent, blog and social media posts and comments, and information submitted to online services.

As with creative rights, expressing opinions and/or sharing information is a right, but one that needs to be exercised with caution.  Just because it’s legal, doesn’t mean it’s good judgment. Consider the Harvard students who had their acceptance rescinded because of racist Facebook posts.  They may have been within their rights of expression but–in addition to the larger implications of the intolerant thinking behind these comments–the students probably also didn’t have the digital literacy to appreciate their digital footprint and how these posts might negatively impact their future.

A crucial lesson of digital literacy is understanding that the internet functions as a log of behavior that lasts much longer than users might initially realize. For those who are unaware of their digital histories, attempting to scrub or hide unwanted or embarrassing behavior later in life can be a daunting task. The best solution is teaching teens and young adults about the power of their digital footprint at a young age, before they have a chance to engage in permanently damaging behavior online.

The Benefits of a Digitally Literate Workforce for Businesses

The digital illiteracy problem spans all ages.  Children, teens, and adults all fall short in their understanding of topics such as evaluating sources, knowing their digital rights and responsibilities, safeguarding against identity theft, and creating a responsible digital footprint.  This lack of preparation ultimately creates a steep learning curve for those entering the workforce. can  

Companies that get behind digital literacy in education for current and future employees are making an investment that will show the benefits of digital literacy for individuals and pay off for their business in terms of employee productivity and mitigating against data breaches.  Ideal employees will have the skillset to conduct efficient and responsible research and the knowledge of how to safeguard confidential information.  A 2018 report found that time lost while finding and managing information on the job results in a 21% productivity decrease.  According to the Identity Management Institute, over 90% of data breach incidents in cyberattacks are due to employees unwittingly giving access and credentials to hackers.  Digitally literate employees are the most effective, reliable workers.

Supporting digital wellness education for kids will help shape them into well-adjusted adults of the digital era.  Equipping young people with these important skills is one of the most powerful solutions in which educators, businesses, political leaders and governments can invest.

Digital Wellness Network

The Digital Wellness Network is a public-private coalition of corporations, nonprofits and educators committed to mitigating the negative impact of unhealthy technology use by empowering students with the skills to make safe and informed decisions about technology.