Digital literacy has become a buzzword in its own right in recent years, as the pandemic fueled a mass adoption of everyday life activities to the internet. Education, employment, healthcare, shopping, and of course communication with loved ones are all activities that largely (or totally) now live online for people in almost every demographic.
But what does digital literacy look like in real life? And perhaps more pressingly, what are the risks of not having it?
For Larry Cook, it meant wiring more than $3 million of his savings to scammers—a tragedy not discovered until after his death. And for job seekers and employees, it means making mistakes that cause them to miss out on opportunities or even lose their jobs.
Taking a deep dive into the full spectrum of digital literacy might change the way you think about its importance - from its basic skill requirements to nuanced ways it powers smart online decision making.
Quick takeaways from this article
● Forbes rates digital literacy the number one skill needed to succeed in today’s digital world and stay employed through 2030.
● Despite widespread access, about one-third of American adults lack basic computer skills. They are currently experiencing a significant skills gap in their jobs.
● In the United States, people lost a collective $8.8 billion to internet scams in 2022, largely due to an inability to recognize them.
● Younger generations have higher digitally-native skills but less perspective on how their online activity can impact their lives.
Digital literacy in 2023: A quick overview
Digital literacy is the ability to understand digital technologies and use them effectively in everyday life. Today, foundational aspects of human life—socialization, education, employment, and even healthcare access—are becoming increasingly dependent on digital skills.
That means digital literacy is no longer something uniquely required for those in tech-related careers. It’s a requirement for successful participation in modern society.
Still, about a third of U.S. adults are considered digitally illiterate with digital literacy being much lower in less developed parts of the word and among minority groups. These individuals are at a higher risk of being left behind in society in ways that compromise their quality of life, and even their basic health and safety.
Further, there are key aspects of digital literacy that aren’t fully leveraged even by groups who have access to digital technologies and use them daily.
So how does digital literacy translate to real-life scenarios? Understanding this is essential to truly effect change and work toward greater digital literacy across communities.
Digital literacy examples that will change your thinking
Basic computer literacy
When they think about digital literacy, many people assume that access is a primary barrier. In other words, people don’t have access to hardware devices like mobile phones and computers, thus they’re not able to leverage digital skills in their everyday lives.
But the truth is that people live and work in digital environments every day while lacking the basic skills they need to navigate them effectively.
According to the National Skills Coalition, as recently as 2020, 31% of American workers had limited or no basic digital skills including the ability to effectively use a computer, a mouse or highlight text on a screen and even understand simple user interfaces (such as an email inbox).
Surprisingly, most individuals in this group hold jobs that require substantive computer skills. This digital literacy gap is likely a source of daily stress, and as demand for advanced digital skills accelerates in the future, it puts people at risk of being unable perform their jobs and retain their positions.
The takeaway: While access does remain a barrier to digital literacy for many populations, there are many people trying to live and work in digital environments they don’t have skills to keep up with—particularly in the workplace.
For employers looking to invest well in digital skills development for their employees, it’s critical to assess the existing skills landscape first. It’s also possible that skills training may need to begin with very basic computer literacy for some individuals or groups at your organization.
Understanding scams and misinformation
For the digitally literate, understanding fact from fiction online may feel like an innate capability. But for those with less skills and experience, online scams and misinformation can result in significant financial loss and an inability to navigate the massive amount of misinformation that exists on digital platforms.
The FTC reports that in 2022, Americans lost a staggering $8.8 billion to fraud in 2022—a more than 30% increase from just one year prior. Losses to investment scams more than doubled, and losses to online business imposters jumped more than $200 million.
At the same time, people with low digital literacy have difficulty navigating the overwhelming amount of news and information that exists on social media platforms and even established news sources.
Recent political elections in the United States and around the world, as well as the COVID-19 pandemic, have shown just how harmful the inability to discern fact from fiction online can be. It impacts people’s ability to make informed decisions, navigate healthcare options, and recognize the impact (or even truth behind) current events.
A recent Harvard study found that while intentional sharing of misinformation remains a real problem, digital literacy increase an individual’s ability to recognize online misinformation, suggesting that higher levels of digital literacy can help people safer online and help people effectively navigate digital ecosystems.
Understanding a digital footprint
Gen Z and younger generations are growing up with digital literacy skills from many perspectives. They’ve been using digital devices since toddlerhood and for them, many aspects of life that older generations had migrate to the digital world—think communicating with friends, taking courses, and reading the news (among many other things)—have always been digitally native.
But they do have a blind spot: their digital footprint.
The gen Z generation may not have the perspective to understand how their online behavior will impact them as adults. A recent New York Post article anecdotally reported about how shocked Gen Z TikTokers were to find out they could miss out on jobs due to their online activity —nearly 80% of businesses already say they have rejected candidates because of their social media content.
For older populations or those otherwise gaining internet access later in life, their digital footprint can also be tough to navigate, although in different ways. Lack of understanding about privacy settings, the implications of sharing personal information, and how to view and assess one’s own digital footprint can be a challenge.
In every case, however, the takeaway is this: Access and even skills development do not make for complete digital literacy. For complete and successful digital participation, education on the full implications of the experience is essential.
Advancing digital literacy for the future
Digital literacy is a spectrum that encompasses every single aspect of digital participation, from operating a computer to deciphering online information to understanding the impact of one’s online activity and much, much, more.
In this article, we’ve covered some examples of digital literacy to help expand your thinking on its importance and the work that still needs to be done, but the list is not exhaustive.
“Today, digital literacy is critical for creating new opportunities,” shares Evan Dixon, president Global Fixed Broadband, Viasat. “While digital skills help consumers effectively navigate the online world, connectivity enables access to life essentials like communication with loved ones, accessing healthcare, attending online classes, and getting work done. Viasat’s vision is to bring connectivity where it’s needed most, so anyone, anywhere can unlock their potential.”
Viasat is helping promote digital literacy education in communities that need it most by partnering with organizations like South Carolina’s Fairfield County School District and Psicología y Derechos Humanos.
Learn more about how Viasat provides worldwide connectivity to enable digital literacy and inclusion around the world.