The Complicated Nature of Digital Literacy

Danah Boyd, a social media scholar and youth researcher, asserts in the chapter”Literacy: Are Today’s Youth Digital Natives?” in her book, It’s Complicated: The Social Lives of Networked Teens, that the discourse about “digital natives” fails to address the challenges of some teens in that group. Boyd explains the emergence of the term “digital natives,” discusses the subsequent emergence of new technologies, and then moves into a discussion about the political ramifications of the digital divide that grew simultaneously with the concept. The author’s purpose, then, is to highlight the socio-political causes of the digital disparity in order to persuade academics and educators to participate in the movement to increase digital literacy.

Boyd claims that identifying the digital populace as either “digital natives” or “digital immigrants” detracts from the issue of accessibility. Her explanation about the various ways in which teens access digital media illustrates how the disparity grows.

Talk of digital natives may make it harder for us to pay attention to the digital divide in terms of who has access to different technical platforms and the participation gap in terms of who has access to certain skills and competencies or for that matter, certain cultural experiences and social identities. (192)
Those who have computers at home are able to access the media more often; therefore their digital literacy skills are usually greater. Those who do not have frequent access are in a constant state of playing catch-up. This disadvantage, when not adequately addressed, leaves this subgroup of “digital natives” far enough behind that it is harder to compete with their cohorts. I can relate to this because when I was in the seventh grade, I was one of those students who did not have a computer at home. There were no computers in the library yet, so the only computers I had access to were at school. A few years went by before I could regularly access a computer and a few more before I learned to use one to do anything other than play Frogger. I was one of those people who were digitally illiterate; I was behind. This is not to say that it is impossible for the disadvantaged to catch-up, but it is a challenge nonetheless. So Boyd’s argument is somewhat valid.However, it lacks adequate support. There is no data to support the author’s claim. Instead, she seems to rely on the credibility of other authors and researchers who discuss some of these issues earlier.
The author suggests that censoring “problematic content” fails to provide users the opportunity to flex their academic muscles. Boyd uses the controversy about Wikipedia’s trustworthiness as an example. This familiar example allows the reader to better understand the censorship issue. She claims that “[students] need to know how to grapple with the plethora of information that is easily accessible and rarely vetted” (181). In other words, protecting students from seemingly incorrect information weakens their academic muscles and fails to prepare them for a world run by propaganda.

At first glance, one would think that “digital natives” have no problem accessing and making use of digital media. However, being able to access the internet from a digital device does not make one tech savvy. According to one example that Boyd uses, some have access to the internet, but because it is sometimes a little sketchy, students choose easier platforms (194). It is “easier” to ask someone else because of the limitations. This, according to Boyd, is a distraction. She states, “The rhetoric of “digital natives,” far from being useful, is often a distraction to understanding the challenges that youth face in a networked world” (194). So this limitations are just one example of the “distractions” that some young users face. Although Boyd’s argument is reasonable, her lack of statistics makes it hard for someone without prior knowledge or experience to accept.
Boyd, Danah. “Literacy: Are Today’s Youth Digital Natives?” It’s Complicated: The Social Lives of Networked Teens. Yale University Press, 2014, pp. 176-198.

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