In 2018, 94% of children ages 3 to 18 had internet access. With the growing number of digital devices marketed toward children and teens, it’s certain that most of those youth also used internet access in some capacity. Today, it’s just as likely to see 4-year-olds playing on smartphones as it is to see them kicking balls. That’s why digital literacy is more important than ever.
Literacy is the ability to communicate by reading and writing. Digital literacy is the ability to communicate digitally. However, it involves more than what might seem obvious. Knowing how to use technology is just the start. Many children and teens know how to navigate the web with ease, but that doesn’t mean they are digitally literate.
To be digitally literate means knowing how to use digital tools effectively and safely. This requires that a person understand the technology, how and why it’s used and how to use it appropriately. It also means that a user should understand the potential dangers and be able to take precautions. Although most of the children and teens in your congregation may be well-versed in social media and web browsing, many are still not digitally literate.
Whether they are using the computer in the school library or their own smartphone or tablet, children and teens should have a basic, age-appropriate understanding of the following concepts:
How to communicate online
Navigating everything from email to text messages may seem like a breeze for a generation of young people who were practically born with a smartphone in hand. However, there is truth to the saying “out of sight, out of mind.” The lack of accountability and anonymous nature of the internet can embolden people and lead to typing/saying things that would never be spoken face-to-face. Children and youth need to understand that just like there are manners in life, there is an online etiquette that should be learned and followed.
How to protect oneself online
There is danger online. Phishing schemes, cyberbullies and child predators are on the list of serious dangers. It’s not realistic to believe that young people will refrain from internet use because of the dangers. It’s definitely not realistic to think that they can avoid all the dangerous elements. Educate and empower children and youth on how to minimize their digital footprints and how to recognize, avoid and react to potential dangers. It’s also important that they know where to go for help when needed.
How to ethically and legally use internet resources
School-age children and teens often use internet resources for reports and assignments as well as for personal use. Being digitally literate means knowing how to effectively search for and use the information they find and to differentiate between real and fake information. Students need to understand what plagiarism is, why it’s wrong and how to appropriately give credit when necessary.
Youth not only need to learn the critical thinking skills related to internet use but also how to appropriately react to the content they find there. They don’t just need to know what social media is and how to use it; they need to know how to form meaningful online connections and avoid harmful ones. Young people, who are still in the middle of many physical changes, must learn to navigate their own emotions and act with self-control when dealing with people online.
The church can be a valuable tool to guide young internet users towards better online experiences. There are several ways that your church can take up the cause:
Explore ways to teach safe and ethical use of technology. Like Ringgold United Methodist Church in Georgia, you may want to create an in-person class, or you can create an online presentation, like Oak Hill UMC in Texas. Enlist the help of members within your congregation that are already tech-savvy. Invite parents and their children (including teens) to participate together. Consider purchasing digital literacy curriculum to teach digital literacy skills or create your own.
Display educational posters in the student areas of your church to help raise awareness and take other steps to help stop cyberbullying.
During sermons and in small group classes, include lessons that are relevant to the moral aspects of internet use.
Contact your local library and public schools to see what kinds of classes or materials are available to help in this area. Check out online safety resources such as the Be Internet Awesome program offered by Google. Help your congregation stay informed about the tools that are available, both free and for purchase.
Provide teaching and training for small group leaders and parents to pass along to children and teens.
Model responsible digital citizenship in church media usage and accounts.
At first glance, it may appear that digital literacy is an issue for families and schools to address. However, because of the ethical and moral applications, churches have a responsibility in teaching it as well. Just as the church takes an active role in helping parishioners become better citizens, it should seek to help young internet users use devices in safe and appropriate ways, thus becoming more responsible digital citizens.
Tricia K. Brown is a writer, editor, keynote speaker and Bible teacher. In addition to being a wife and mother of four sons, she is the sole proprietor of The Girls Get Together, where she and her team provide women's event programs for churches and other organizations. Her latest book, "A Year of Yearning: A 12-Month Devotional to Help You Study God's Word More," is available from Amazon.