Digital Literacy and Digital Natives

Danah Boyd, “Literacy: Are Today’s Youth Digital Natives?” from It’s Complicated: The Social Lives of Networked Teens (2014)

This is a chapter from a longer book that I found a link to on Tumblr, of all places. I’m not sure I want to read an entire ethnographic study about “networked teens,” but this chapter is illuminating. Every year I find myself working with a surprising number of students who have close to zero digital literacy. For years I’ve been trying to ask my colleagues where this lack of digital literacy comes from, but to no avail.

Thankfully, I finally have an answer to my eternal question of “why don’t they just google it.” Apparently, a lot of Gen Z kids understand the idiomatic usage of the expression “just google it” but don’t know how to access Google. Many children and teenagers only interact with the internet through apps on their phones and tablets, so typing “google.com” into a web browser would never occur to them.

According to the author, the 2001 No Child Left Behind Act bears a lot of the blame. Because they were forced to focus their resources on standardized testing, many schools were no longer able to offer once-a-week special elective classes on subjects like music, computers, home economics, and so on. This means that most American kids who went to public school in the 2000s and 2010s never had an opportunity to sit down in a computer lab with a teacher telling them what a search engine is. On top of that, there’s an ongoing education employment crisis in which very few relatively young people have been able to get jobs in primary or secondary schools, while many of the older teachers have no idea what sites like Google and Wikipedia are and how they work, only that they’re “bad.”

A lot of kids manage to pick up some degree of digital literacy purely by osmosis, but what the author argues is that we shouldn’t take this osmosis for granted. Which is fair, but I still can’t help but wonder how a reasonably intelligent American teenager from a reasonably middle-class background can manage to get all the way through high school and into college and still not know how to use Google.

Anyway, (this is the link) to the PDF of the book chapter if you’re interested.

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