Digital Literacy Skills: 3 Unique Family Engagement Tips

Want To Build Teens’ Digital Literacy Skills? Tap Into Family Engagement

By Maren Madalyn, contributing writer

As a long-time “career explorer,” I cannot underscore how important it has been to build my digital competency with each job transition I’ve experienced. From the many learning tools used in my special education classroom, to the highly specialized resources used in software development, to the numerous AI platforms that aid me as a writer today — I’ve had to learn so many new and emerging digital technologies in my professional life. 

The sheer abundance of online platforms — and their ubiquitous adoption in most modern workplaces, not to mention everyday life — highlights just how essential digital literacy skills are. And these skills start developing early on.  

For teens to successfully transition to and thrive in the world beyond high school, they need basic knowledge of digital safety, a comfort with operating in a digital environment, and much more. While many of these skills may be taught in classrooms or through specific school programs, educators are far from alone in their work to improve them. 

By partnering with families to cultivate a healthy attitude towards technology and positive digital skills, educators ensure today’s students are prepared for tomorrow’s ever-evolving world.

Learn more about ParentPowered's high school family engagement curriculum!

Digital literacy: A core component to career and college readiness

Let’s take a closer look at the relationship between digital literacy skills and a student’s readiness to entire either the workforce or a postsecondary learning environment.

What are digital literacy skills, exactly?

Digital tools abound in our modern world. It is likely that, at some point in a person’s life, they will need to use online platforms or applications as part of their learning journey in school (at any age) or within a work environment. 

According to the Association for Library Sciences Digital Literacy Task Force, digital literacy is “the ability to use information and communication technologies to find, evaluate, create, and communicate information, requiring both cognitive and technical skills.”

In other words, it’s how well a person utilizes tools like social platforms, search engines, mobile devices, and more as both a contributor and a consumer of digital content.

Many organizations have developed their own models for mapping out the skills that make for successful engagement with digital tools — from state departments of education in the U.S. to international agencies like UNESCO and the European Union itself. However, there is no single standard for what it means to be digitally literate.

Despite some variation, most frameworks do align on certain capabilities that students and adult learners develop to build their digital competency.

Here are just a few of those skills pulled from the examples linked above:

  • Operational use of digital tools: This refers to how students learn the instrumental functions of technology and use this basic knowledge to interact with the tool. Think: logging into a platform, navigating its features and pages, choosing the appropriate digital tool to complete a task, etc.
  • Critical thinking and reflection: With the plethora of information available online, discernment and critical reflections become all the more crucial to tease apart fact from fiction. This skill goes beyond identifying misinformation generated by humans (or by technology itself); it also involves assessing the origins of digital content, identifying potential biases within it, and determining for oneself what this information means. 
  • Effective communication and collaboration skills: Today’s digital space creates new avenues for students to connect and work together. Teens who understand how to safely, respectfully, and effectively use digital resources for this purpose will find greater success in certain work environments that lean on communication and collaboration in a digital environment. They may also be better equipped to navigate the beauty and the challenges of social media. 
  • Artificial intelligence (AI) literacy: With the recent explosion of accessible AI tools, educators, employees, and employers alike face new challenges with discovering how to best utilize these resources — while keeping their accuracy and impact in check. Increasingly, schools are experimenting with what it means to be AI-literate. Unsurprisingly, many of the digital literacy skills already taught in classrooms overlap with AI literacy, despite the novelty of this emerging technology.

As UNICEF explains in their 2019 report, digital skills are heavily influenced by a number of factors beyond a student’s control. A few examples include their families’ perspectives on technology use, access to adequate technology resources and education, and guidance provided by educators or other adults for healthy technology engagement.

Why do these skills matter for teens’ college and career readiness?

As technology continues to evolve at an ever-more rapid pace, teens’ college and career readiness depends on their ability to keep up with the changes as they impact work, studies, and life beyond.

The repercussions of this age of technology is most evident in the workplace. If the world-wide chaos of 2020 and 2021 taught us anything, it underscored the incredible importance of digital literacy for employees during economic upheaval. One study examining workers’ digital skills found great variation across major industries, putting some employees at a disadvantage as jobs continue to evolve and change (Bergson-Shilcock, 2020).

Even an employee’s attitude towards technology and their perception of the importance of digital literacy affects these skills! 

As companies seek to adopt more tools that create efficiencies or other gains, research shows that, if employees do not see these resources as user-friendly (or if they lack confidence in their own digital skills), they struggle to utilize them (Nikou et al., 2022). This gap holds implications for both employer and employee.

A Black father smiles as he uses his phone while sitting on a couch at home.

In college and other postsecondary education spaces, technology skills too are essential. Many universities are taking advantage of platforms that simplify course enrollment, streamline lesson delivery through online content, and expand educator-student interactions into the digital space. Further, universities are increasingly emphasizing digital literacy skills as explicit components to their career readiness programs and commitments to students. Research also indicates that digital literacy can impact college students’ achievement and career planning (Soeprijanto et al., 2022). 

In the end, digital literacy requires ongoing skills development that continues into adulthood — so long as technology, work, and classroom practices evolve, so too must students’ basic knowledge and skills with using digital tools! This is why career counseling strategies for both teens and adults weave in building digital skills to support their success at work.

3 unexpected ways to cultivate digital literacy skills beyond the classroom

Educators in K12 schools carry the unique challenge of preparing students for the future world without knowing exactly what technology in that world might look like. The good news is that teachers and administrators are not alone in this endeavor. Digital literacy skills can be taught to teens (and adults!) through a variety of ways, from workshops at the local public library to targeted Career & Technical Education programs offered at a high school. 

But there’s one resource that educators still have much opportunity to explore when preparing students’ digital literacy skills. If you’re familiar with ParentPowered, then you know which one we mean: families and caregivers! 

Research has long demonstrated how effective family engagement impacts the entire school community at all grade levels. When it comes to digital literacy, families can play an invaluable role guiding their teens in age appropriate ways to engage with technology in positive ways. 

Explore these strategies for partnering with your families and scaffolding how they can support teens’ digital literacy skills. 

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Emphasize social-emotional learning at all ages

Before digital skills develop, students first learn “softer” ones that transcend technology. 

Why? Students that cultivate social emotional learning skills like self-awareness, perspective taking, and collaboration in the physical world are better positioned to then positively translate these skills to the digital space. Social-emotional learning is a necessary prerequisite for a student to become a citizen whose digital presence contributes meaningfully to the world. 

Families are well positioned to nurture social-emotional development in their children. In fact, they’re often already doing it — without even realizing! Take a look at these resources and activities to aid caregivers with building specific life skills that influences kids’ online behavior in healthy ways:

Educate families and teens on the power of a pause

For teens, self-reflection is one of the most impactful skills they can build. Not only is it important for college and career planning, as well as building one’s unique identity, self-reflection also influences their relationship with digital tools in daily life.

And healthy engagement with technology is closely connected to positive digital literacy practices, both in adolescence and adulthood.

ParentPowered’s high school family engagement curriculum emphasizes the importance of supporting teens with observing their own online behavior and technology use. By coaching caregivers in effective communication practices, with age-appropriate discussion prompts and activities, parents can initiate crucial conversations and encourage everyone in the family to practice the power of pausing and reflecting.

A sample ParentPowered message guiding families and teens through self-reflection about technology use.

Download and share our family resource guide to support your community with building healthy technology habits in teens in everyday life.

Integrate digital literacy skills into other “literacy” teachings

As alluded to earlier, digital literacy isn’t the only form of “literacy” that students benefit from practicing before high school graduation. As schools and community organizations explore ways to build teens’ financial literacy, health literacy, and more, why not weave in opportunities to engage digital literacy skills too? 

Further still, why not encourage the entire family to learn how to better leverage digital tools? Adults benefit from bolstering their digital literacy as a means to participate in today’s complex technology spaces as they gain skills that support successful job resilience and socioeconomic mobility. 

A mother and her teen girl use a laptop computer together at home.

Among certain communities, there may even be an opportunity to close the “digital divide.” The National Digital Inclusion Alliance defines this as “the gap between those who have affordable access, skills, and support to effectively engage online and those who do not.” Breaking down barriers to technology engagement and literacy is an important piece of creating equitable opportunities for students and adults like in the modern world. 

Here are just a few ideas for nurturing multiple forms of literacy in both families and students:

  • Teen-led workshops for adults can help foster foundational digital skills. Consider partnering with local community organizations, such as a public library or a faith-based center, to bring these opportunities directly to parents and caregivers. When high schoolers lead these activities, they deepen their own digital literacy while also giving back to the community in a meaningful way. 
  • If schools do not have the means to run such programs themselves, they may elect to connect families with community resources that support improving technological skills. Public libraries often offer free lessons in everything from creating a LinkedIn work profile to learning how to use specific devices for daily tasks. Family and community engagement ultimately impacts students’ learning and engagement with technology.
  • Mentorship programs are another excellent way for adults and teens to co-share their unique knowledge and experiences with utilizing technology as part of work and school life. Try pairing teens with mentors in the school community (even parents or family members). These programs may concentrate on specific individuals working in the digital space or remain more open-ended, exploring a wide range of topics like online safety, digital content creation, and more.

Leverage caregivers as collaborators in digital literacy growth with ParentPowered

ParentPowered believes that all children deserve the opportunity to thrive, whether it’s in the physical or digital world. With the right tools and information, parents and caregivers have the potential to greatly impact their students’ lives in this age of technology.

That’s why we designed our family engagement programs to equip families with easy, everyday learning moments that lean on empirical insights about what helps students succeed in our ever-evolving world. Our whole child approach ensures caregivers are primed to support their students in everything from math skills to digital literacy to attendance to social-emotional wellbeing. 

Join an upcoming info session (or watch a pre-recorded demo) to discover how our programs compliment your educational priorities and ensure that, in the end, every child lives a full and wondrous life. 

Looking to learn more about building digital literacy skills? Explore these resources and articles for further reading about effective classroom practices and more:

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About the author

Maren Madalyn has worked at the intersection of K12 education and technology for over a decade, serving in roles ranging from counseling to customer success to product management. She blends this expertise with fluid writing and strategic problem-solving to help education organizations create thoughtful long-form content that empowers educators.

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