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Improving digital literacy among minors

CHEN ZHIJUAN | 2022-01-21 | Hits:
(Chinese Social Sciences Today)

A teenage boy plays an online game in China (Nanjing) International Software Product and Information Service Trade Fair. Photo: CFP

As one of the online activities popular with minors in recent years, online games have a complicated influence and shaping effect on youth. Gaming represents a means of understanding the world and engaging in social interactions for minors. Meanwhile, the hazard of online games has also drawn attention from all sectors of society. Reasons why minors indulge in online games are analyzed below, from the perspective of digital literacy. 

Inadequate attention 
Digital literacy is a comprehensive, dynamic, and inclusive concept that has evolved from “media literacy,” “computer literacy,” “information literacy,” and “internet quality.” Having digital literacy means being able to apply digital skills to gathering, evaluating, arranging, and utilizing mass data in both the virtual and real world, to produce knowledge in a creative way. It also means the person is equipped with basic survival skills, such as critical thinking and critical judgment. 
Digital literacy also involves other relevant concepts’ principal aspects. Computer literacy and internet literacy are the foundation and core of digital literacy, while information literacy and media literacy are techniques to apply in digitized situations, which lays the foundation for the conceptual model of digital literacy. Digital health is another concept that concerns how users manage their screen time, balance their lives online and offline, distinguish between healthy and unhealthy online relationships, and protect their online identities. 
Minors are a special group in the internet era, in that they are “digital natives” through and through. Having grown up in an ocean of information, they display distinct features of the internet era in terms of their cognitive patterns and learning habits. Underage internet users whose cognitive competence and behaviors have not been fully developed face potential risks when playing online games. This includes how to properly distinguish right from wrong within a game’s values, separating the virtual and real world, or difficulty in managing time, as well as game addiction, online bullying, and privacy invasion. 
However, data clearly shows that minors’ digital literacy remains low. According to the “2020 Report on Minors’ Internet Literacy,” the average underage users’ internet literacy score is 3.54 out of five, which is above the passing line but still calls for further improvement. Out of the six dimensions evaluated in the test, “internet moral accomplishment” scores the highest, reaching 3.94. “Online impression management ability” scores the lowest at 3.02. 
The report also shows that minors’ academic performance is in positive correlation with their internet literacy, while the average daily time spent using the internet is in negative correlation with underage users’ internet literacy. Namely, the longer a minor spends daily on average online, the poorer his/her internet literacy is. 
Family influence 
Parents’ digital literacy also has a strong influence on that of their children. Parents need to guide their children to properly use the internet so as to help children tackle addiction to online gaming. The “2020 Research Report on Chinese Minors’ Use of Internet” shows that 50.1% of parents believe that family members should play the most important role in supervising and guiding minors’ internet usage. 
Parents need to learn to communicate in a friendly and open way with their children on this topic. For instance, parents can work with children to establish rules, such as time limits for using electronic products. This will help children develop self-control and self-management. Unfortunately, 57.5% of parents reported that they do not know much about the internet, and 4.1% of them do not know how to use the internet. 
Parents who lack digital literacy usually adopt the following attitudes towards their game-indulgent children. The first attitude stems from the lack of a sound parent-child relationship both online and offline. These parents tend to adopt a non-negotiable approach, prohibiting their children’s access to online games. In the second parenting approach, although parents might not ban games, they usually command or intimidate their children, due to their own ignorance of internet or mobile phone usage, and their lack of knowledge of what activities their children are engaged in online. 
As a result, they tend to deal with online gaming issues in an oversimplified and crude way. The third type of parents are “phubbers” themselves. While these young parents cannot control themselves when using electronic products, they naturally set a bad example for their children in regards to developing good digital media habits. In short, necessary guidance on the many facets of internet usage, including time and content, are not given to minors by parents that have limited education, time, energy, or digital literacy. 
Digital literacy education needed 
Digital literacy education is marginalized in China’s current education system. First, an effective education system for digital literacy has yet to take shape in China. There are urgent needs to formulate this system’s framework, standards, and a long-term action plan. Courses and educational resources are also needed to facilitate digital literacy education among students. 
Second, over-generalization exists due to vague notions of digital literacy, leading to unclear differentiation among content related to digital literacy, media literacy, computer literacy, internet literacy, and information literacy. A survey shows that 65.6% of netizen minors learn internet skills all by themselves, whereas only 25.7% of them acquire online skills at school. 
Last but not least, education on digital literacy in China is, in general, at a superficial level, the overall design of which falls short of hierarchy and logic, and a good combination of professional and practical applications is absent. From the perspective of educational forms, innovation is needed, as traditional courses, lectures, and training are still in the majority. In regard to content, technology is mostly the starting point, but an evaluation system in line with China’s national conditions should be established. 
China’s digital literacy education in primary and secondary schools is generally decoupled from and lagging behind the development of new online media. First, China’s education department has not yet put digital literacy education on the agenda. Problems remain even in the primary and secondary schools that do promote the education. 
For instance, a systematic, scientific, and standardized curriculum for digital literacy has not yet been established; relevant content is loosely scattered in various courses, such as Basics of Computer Application, Ideology and Politics, Ideological and Moral Cultivation, and Fundamentals of Law; more than half of the schools only focus on “warning of network risks” and “making use of the internet to improve in-class learning performance” when it comes to enhancing digital literacy. 
Second, teachers are the guides for learning activities as well as the models of internet use. Teachers’ digital literacy is significantly associated with that of the minors, because minors’ awareness of digital literacy can be influenced by their teachers’ attitudes, digital skills, and internet use habits. Students show a high degree of recognition towards teachers with relatively high digital literacy. 
However, without education, guidance, and discipline of their students’ internet use and behavior beforehand, most teachers tend to address the problem after it has occurred. Such a passive state of action is the underlying reason why issues frequently occur when minors use the internet, among which indulgence in online games is a key issue. 
In the digital era, it is impossible for us to cut off minors’ access to the internet and online games. Online games themselves are neither good nor bad. In essence, online gaming is a type of online interaction, and the process of playing those games is a social interaction process. 
In order to determine whether the positive impact of online games outweighs the negative one, or the other way around, the digital literacy of minors themselves should be the key. With the goal of solving the problem of minors’ indulgence in online games, it is necessary to treat online games objectively and rationally. International experience in digital literacy education can be studied and used as references to promote practical and effective educational policies on digital literacy. The digital literacy curriculum and the cultural ecology of campus networks should be optimized. It is also imperative to put into place a family digital literacy educational program to enhance parents’ own digital literacy. 
In addition, efforts from internet companies and social organizations are also needed to facilitate education, so that a sound digital environment can be created. 
With joint endeavors from parents, schools, society, and businesses, minors’ digital literacy can be further improved by learning to make good use of the internet instead of avoiding it. Only in this way can we solve the problem of minors’ indulgence in online games in an effective manner. 
Chen Zhijuan is an associate research fellow from the National Centre for Communication Innovation Studies at the Communication University of China. 
Edited by WENG RONG