Podcast: Digital Literacy and Why It Matters So Much to Kids

How ethical thinking and digital citizenship are connected

Although it may seem out-of-step with the zeitgeist, where “post-truth” was declared the 2016 Oxford Dictionaries Word of the Year, according to digital literacy expert Diana Graber, “Ethical thinking is the skill du jour,” and this ability is now inextricably linked to how parents and teachers should teach their kids to be good digital citizens. In an age where so many of a child’s waking hours are spent in front of an interactive screen, the ability to bring ethical thinking to the content they choose to upload, download, or otherwise consume is not only a critical component of their formational experience, it is a record of their behavior that, in Diana’s words, “will never go away.”

That means the consequences of both good and bad behavior online have never been higher. 

According to Diana, it’s critical that adults realize that it’s not until kids reach the age of 13 that they develop the cognitive skills to do abstract thinking, the prerequisite to ethical thinking. Diana explains: “I’m always surprised and perplexed when parents will give a nine-year-old a cellphone with unlimited access, and then they’re like, ‘Oh, my god! I can’t believe my daughter did that,’ or ‘my son did that.’”

She continues, “It’s not the child’s fault, because they really don’t have that brain power to think ethically. When you think about it, almost everything we do online requires ethical thought. ‘Do I upload a photo that’s unflattering to my friend? Do I download music that I don’t have the rights to? Do I plagiarize? Do I copy and paste?’”

No grownup left behind!

To help teachers and parents learn about digital citizenship, online safety, privacy, sexting, cyberbullying, and reputation management, Diana co-founded CyberWise™, an online resource that can help adults more effectively teach kids to embrace technology safely and wisely. The website’s motto, “No Grownup Left Behind!” speaks to the urgency that adults get smart about the implications of children’s online behavior, in regard to both their evolving reputation and well-being, by improving their own digital literacy.

As a recognized expert in media psychology and literacy, Diana admits that the concepts are new to many adults. “A lot of people scratch their heads, wondering what that is. But it’s really the study of human behavior in relations to media,” explains Diana. “As a former film and video producer, I saw media really changing when my children were younger. So I went back to school and got a master’s in something called ‘Media Psychology and Social Change.’ While I was there, really what I noticed is there’s all this great research happening in the realm of digital literacy.”

While doing her studies, Diana realized that the concepts central to digital literacy weren’t getting to the audience who needed it most: parents and teachers. Hence the creation of CyberWise™. “We really focus on this concept of digital citizenship, which is the safe and responsible use of digital tools. That’s really foundational to everything that we all do online. A lot of other concepts and topics grow out of that, but that’s really the bedrock of what we provide,” explains Diana.

The birth of Cyber Civics™

A social media incident involving her daughter’s eighth-grade class ironically coincided with the publication of Diana’s journal article, “New Media Literacy Education (NMLE): A Developmental Approach,” which examines the evolution of social networking via digital platforms and the implications of a society in which young people spend more time online than they do in school or with their parents. 

The incident in question involved a girl in her daughter’s class who posted to Facebook, daily and without fail, photographs of herself and her classmates. According to Diana, the student chose photos “in which she looked really good and her friends, every time, looked terrible. To an eighth-grade girl, that’s a big deal.”

Although by today’s standards, Diana terms the incident as “lightweight,” it caused a tempest at her daughter’s school. Parents who saw the pictures reported the repetitive postings to school administrators as cyberbullying, and the administrator “spent a week with crying girls in and out of his office, and irate parents, and it was just eating all this administrative time,” says Diana.

As she watched this kerfuffle play out, Diana thought “Wow, we should try to preempt these issues.” So she volunteered to teach digital literacy at the school, beginning with a sixth-grade class. The administrator’s response was “Can you start tomorrow?” and that was how the Cyber Civics™ program (A Digital Citizenship & Literacy Curriculum for Middle School) was born.

As she started teaching, Diana realized that digital citizenship could not be taught in a one-hour assembly or lesson. “It is a very complex topic. So with the children, we are very thoughtful about starting at sixth grade when they’ve developed the ethical thinking skills to be able to think through the scenarios that could happen online,” explains Diana. Soon, the Cyber Civics™ curriculum expanded into a three-year program for grades 6–8.

Year 1 focuses on peer-to-peer learning activities that call on critical thinking, ethical discussion, and decision making through hands-on projects, problem-solving activities, and role-play—all surrounding the topic of "digital citizenship" (the norms of appropriate, responsible behavior with regard to technology use). Year 2 emphasizes information literacy, ethical and critical thinking, discussion, and decision making through hands-on projects, problem solving, and role-play. Like Year 1, it can be taught with or without technology. Year 3 focuses on media literacy, and helps students to use critical thinking skills to evaluate the deluge of media messages they encounter. The Cyber Civics™ program concludes with a final unit teaching kids how to become positive and productive digital citizens.

On the difference between digital facility and digital literacy

Asked to describe the difference between digital facility and digital literacy, Diana neatly sums up how the skillset involved in manipulating digital media does not necessarily translate into an understanding of the value or impact of the content kids contribute or absorb: “Put a child alone with an iPhone® for three minutes, and they’ll have it mastered. So learning how to push buttons, I mean, it’s innate in these kids. That’s not where they need our help. Frankly, they know more than any of us do, and we need their help in that realm. But they do need our wisdom and our lived experience to know how to act as a human online. That’s really important, because that’s something that’s taught over a lifetime. I mean, it’s the golden rules we learned as children. We learned those rules so that we’d be nice in our neighborhood. I mean, to our kids, their neighborhood is the world,” says Diana. 

Guest Biography

Diana Graber is founder of CyberWise.org and CyberCivics.com, two organizations dedicated to helping adults and kids learn digital literacy skills. A professional media producer with an M.A. in Media Psychology & Social Change, Graber is also a regular contributor on digital media topics to The Huffington Post, CNN, and others. Her Cyber Civics™ program was recently recognized as an "Innovation in Education" finalist by Project Tomorrow and the O.C. Tech Alliance and is now being taught at schools in 24 states and internationally. She was also Adjunct Professor of Media Psychology at the Massachusetts School of Professional Psychology (MSPP).

Schedule a Consultation