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Kids and Digital Literacy: Why It’s Time to Do More than Play Defense

Teaching kids to understand and curate their digital identities equips them with essential skills for navigating their futures

When it comes to teaching computing skills to kids, many educators, parents, and curriculum-creators are focused on methods of protecting kids from potentially dangerous online encounters.

These defensive skills are important. But they neglect the reality of daily life in the 21st century where computers are collecting and analyzing our data at every turn, even when we’re not at a keyboard.

To truly empower our children, we need to teach them to take charge of their personal digital data. In other words, it’s time for parents and educators to focus not just on defending from potential threats, but making sure kids have the tools and understanding to proactively protect their personal data. It’s time for us all to go on the offense.

With social distancing forcing students to spend hours a day online for Internet-based instruction and social interaction, there has never been a better time for adults to begin helping them take ownership of the digital information created by them, and about them, and learn the many ways in which this information can be used.

Every interaction we have with a digital device, and many interactions we have in the everyday world, generate digital data that is later aggregated and analyzed. Sometimes, we knowingly and explicitly give our data over, like when we post about ourselves to social media or complete an online assignment given by a teacher. Other times, an array of existing software collects implicit traces of our activities, like when a photo sharing app automatically adds a geographic “location” tag to a photo, or an online classroom software records the amount of time a student spends online—whether or not the child notices. Still other “real world” interactions also generate digital data, like how our frequent shopper cards enable a drugstore to log items in a purchase, or a digital camera counts pedestrians on a city street, or a utility company notes that a clothes dryer has started in your neighbor’s basement.

A recent report issued by the Children’s Commissioner for England, Who Knows What about Me, lays out the alarming rate at which data is generated by, and about children. More than 70% of American teenagers aged 13-17 report that they use social media on a daily basis; in fact, they spend on average more than an hour a day with social media. These challenges are not isolated to teens; Internet-connected toys for children of all ages collect various information about the user to enable personalized interactive play, location-based interactions, and marketing. The global market for Internet-connected toys was valued at $5.7 billion in 2019. As I type this, thousands of software programs are mining all of this data for insights about our children. Many may be too young to operate a lawn mower, and yet marketing companies are already building files about their preferences and habits, almost entirely without our notice. 

Now that children’s learning and social interactions have (hopefully temporarily) all moved online, we are presented with an opportunity to expose them to the digital data that is generated by them, and about them, using their own daily experiences.

While the connections between collected data and its uses may often be subtle, there are things users of all ages can understand. For example, when we type on a keyboard, automated software often makes a suggestion of likely next words to type. These suggestions are based on what we have previously typed. The advertisements we see in social media or in a search engine are based on our browsing history or even in-person, in-store purchases. Fitness wearables and applications nudge us to be more active or complete a certain number of steps for the day, based on our past activity or the activity of our friends.

To help younger elementary-aged children get started thinking—without giving them anxiety—ask them about the benefits of digital interactions, for instance still being able to participate in a class read-along even when they can’t be together in person. An important conversation for upper elementary and middle school students is asking them to think about how their digital interactions, both social and educational, differ from their real-world ones. What qualities are missing when the interaction is virtual? What do they like about not-being in person? Any advantages?

Finally, another way to facilitate proactive thinking: ask them to think about the implications if another party records a video or conversation without their knowledge, then posts it online or shares it with strangers. What might a teacher infer about them if they had access to that information? How might that affect the perceptions of someone they’ve never met?

Once a child has mastered these basics and can identify the types of digital data being created about them, they can go deeper to consider which specific applications and tools are involved with their digital interactions and what type of data is created or shared as a result. With these new insights, children will be ready to recognize that much of their data should be protected, and they can mitigate potential negative impacts by thinking carefully before choosing what to make available to others. 

It is true that the collection of personal data can sometimes be beneficial. Data from educational apps can help teachers connect with families, or engage children with autism in the classroom. Data analyses of disease onset may inspire new treatments and medications. And both children and adults can stay connected to friends and family who live halfway around the world or are simply self-isolating down the street. 

Still, we have more than enough evidence to see that the collection of data about children is a cause for concern. In a 2018 interview with the BBC, Barclays estimated that, by 2030, two-thirds of identity fraud impacting young people would be based on data shared by parents on social media. Already, many human rights experts worry that advertisers, college admissions teams, health insurance providers and potential employers could use data generated by and about kids to limit their future access to opportunities and services.

Once children see and understand the connection between their behaviors and digital data, they can step into the driver’s seat and choose what information to provide, or withhold. And just like new drivers need learning permits, children need to be guided in this process. Instead of just defensively trying to prevent access to the digital world, adults must help them learn offensive strategies for protecting themselves — and their futures. 

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