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Are children skilled enough for the digital world?

Children safety online. Little girl using smartphone at home. icon of internet blocking app on foreground

We spend our days surrounded by digital technology. We use it to work, learn, socialise, entertain ourselves, shop … almost every aspect of life nowadays involves the use of information and communication technologies. But how can relatively inexperienced children fully benefit from the advantages of the digital world while avoiding harm?

To answer this question, two EU-funded projects, ySKILLS and DYGIMATEX are trying to understand whether children today are ready to deal with the challenges posed by the digital world by evaluating their digital skills and digital maturity levels.

New times require new skills. To efficiently adapt to a new, changing environment, we need to have the appropriate knowledge, and that is particularly true for the digital environment. ySKILLS coordinator Leen d’Haenens considers four groups of digital skills the most important for children, “namely technical and operational skills, information navigation and processing, communication and interaction skills, content creation and production skills, as well as programming skills.”

Measuring digital skills is not easy, particularly in teenagers. Despite this difficulty, researchers at ySKILLS developed the first performance test for some types of digital skills in this age group, which will help researchers, teachers and parents to better understand the actual skill level of children.

Having good digital skills is very important, however, this does not appear to correlate with increased psychological well-being or decreased risk of being exposed to harmful content. This may be because more skilled teenagers are usually under higher exposure, which increases this risk.

To deal with this issue, Leen d’Haenens says: “I think the most important are the children’s own harm mitigation strategies, how do they respond to the risks associated with digital tools. To optimally react to those situations, we have found that communication and interaction skills are vital, as our research in a quite homogeneous group of Afghan refugees in Belgium showed.”Read full interview of Leen D’Haenens

Accordingly, not only skills are important, but also how those skills are applied: a concept developed by the research team, which they called ‘digital maturity’. You could say that you do not just need the hands but also the brain, and DYGIMATEX tries to unveil the level at which 9–18 year old children can use digital technology in a mature, healthy way.

Marco Hubert, coordinator of DIGYMATEX: “Digital maturity is a dynamic concept that changes over time and describes the overall ability of children to assess and regulate their behaviour on when, how, and in which contexts the use of digital technologies is either beneficial or harmful to them.”Read full interview of Marco Hubert

Interestingly, according to Hubert, “the initial results of our project indicate a positive correlation between digital maturity, children’s well-being, and beneficial use of digital devices and content”.These results seem to support ySKILLS’ findings that digital skills alone –though necessary– are not sufficient to ensure a healthy use of digital technologies. According to the project experts,social/emotional interventions focused on increasing young people’s digital maturity are also needed: increase their capacity to use digital technologies in an autonomous and self-determined way, the capacity to master digital challenges and solve problems, and the capacity to interact adequately with others and contribute to society.

To cover both fronts – digital skills and digital maturity – digital skills could be developed by increasing accessibility to media literacy and digital skill training at schools throughout Europe while increasing digital maturity can be achieved either by using the new app that DYGIMATEX has developed together with European children or, in the future, by following their research-based recommendations.

In conclusion, to ensure that children are up to the challenges of the current digital world, they need to develop a new skill set based on media literacy and other digital skills like programming or communication. However, this is not enough. To ensure that their well-being is not compromised by the risks associated with digital technology, we need to encourage, foster, and develop their digital maturity as well.

Useful link:
• Video by the European Parliament: “Creating a better internet for kids

Related content

A scientist’s opinion: interview with Marco Hubert on children’s ‘digital maturity’
A scientist’s opinion: interview with Leen D’Haenens on positive impact of the digital environment for children

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