Smartphones, screen time, and digital literacy: Research and resources for parents and students

If you’ve watched documentaries like The Social Dilemma, in which tech experts discuss the negative effects of social media use on kids’ and teens’ mental health, you may feel that smartphones cause more harm than good when it comes to students’ productivity and overall wellbeing. However, while social media use has caused an increase in teen mental health issues, Gen Z still needs to be familiar with the tools necessary to thrive in an increasingly digital landscape.

How do you strike a healthy, age-appropriate balance between screen time, school work, and social activities? Are there ways that students can use their smartphones to improve their digital literacy, creativity, and ability to thrive in the digital world?

The answers to these questions can be found in the most recent research about digital literacy as it applies to students. There are also helpful resources for parents that explain what healthy screen time looks like for students and how to strike a healthy balance between promoting digital literacy while avoiding smartphone addiction.

The first step is understanding the digital literacy of the generation known as “digital natives” (i.e., those born after the widespread adoption of digital technology) as compared with that of their parents’ generation. The answer may be surprising.

Gen Z: Do so-called “digital natives” have increased digital literacy?

“According to the International Computer and Information Literacy 2018 study, only 2 percent of students reach the highest level of computer and information literacy and computational thinking skills, meaning they can work independently with technology to gather and manage information and do so with precision and evaluative judgment,” Washington Post reports.

Many people often associate the term “digital literacy” with older people who have trouble using digital devices. In fact, much of digital literacy research is focused on how older individuals interact with unfamiliar technology. But the term is not age-specific and many Gen Z individuals still fall short of current digital literacy competency frameworks, despite being born digital natives.

According to UNICEF’s definition, “digital literacy refers to the knowledge, skills, and attitudes that allow children to flourish and thrive in an increasingly global digital world, being both safe and empowered, in ways that are appropriate to their age and local cultures and contexts.”

Being able to read and interpret text is only one aspect of digital literacy, and deficiencies in other areas can hinder a student’s success in STEM and other technology-related fields.

As noted in Business Wire, “Gen Z’s identity and digital are inextricably linked, blending the physical and digital worlds as never before. They are far more likely than other generations to believe in the positive impact of technology on the world. 64% think artificial intelligence will have a positive impact and 66% believe the Internet will bring us closer together. In fact, when asked which value, quality, or attribute is most important to your generation, Gen Z rated tech-savviness (19%) almost as highly as freedom (22%).”

Digital literacy frameworks and competencies defined

While most parents and students would agree that digital literacy is critical, there still isn’t a single, universally accepted framework to define it, particularly for younger generations. However, many international organizations are working toward defining digital literacy competencies. In a 2020 digital literacy insight, UNICEF identified the following organizations that have worked on developing such frameworks:

UNICEF’s insight notes that the most widely adopted framework for defining digital literacy is the DigComp Framework developed by the European Union (2013) in partnership with the Joint Research Centre (JRC). The five competencies for digital literacy defined in this framework are: 

  • Information and data literacy: Includes a user’s ability to browse, filter, and manage information in a digital environment. 
  • Communication and collaboration: Covers the ability to collaborate with others in a digital environment, including managing your own digital identity and “netiquette.” 
  • Digital content creation: Includes the ability to develop digital content and navigate copyright and other issues. 
  • Safety: The ability to protect devices, data, identities, and sensitive information online. 
  • Problem-solving: Involves the ability to identify and solve technical problems with devices. 

      With an understanding of the framework and its competencies, parents can work with their children to help break through barriers to improving their digital literacy skills.

      7 barriers to digital literacy for students

      While students may be more familiar with devices like smartphones, they still encounter obstacles to improving their digital literacy skills. Here are just a few of the most prevalent:

      1. Teachers’ and parents’ inexperience with technology: Despite advances in education technology and older individuals spending just as much time on smartphones as younger generations, there are still knowledge gaps that parents and teachers need to fill in their own understanding in order to equip students with their own digital competencies.
      2. Lack of digital literacy policy: Policy interventions are necessary in order to create large-scale, generational change when it comes to digital literacy. Some geographic regions and minority groups are especially in need of these skills but lack the resources necessary to develop them. 
      3. Children’s social environment: A child’s social environment shapes their worldview and can affect their desire to improve their skills. 
      4. International language barriers: Increased immigration and globalization have helped people cross borders for a better life, but language barriers can hinder their children’s digital literacy. 
      5. Limited access to connectivity in rural areas: Regional issues, such as a lack of reliable internet and cellular service in rural areas, are also a contributing factor. 
      6. Lack of digital literacy resources for children: Much of the research and resources about digital literacy are focused on older generations, not students.
      7. Lack of internationally accepted definitions and guidelines: With so many frameworks developed every year, a universally accepted definition of digital literacy is lacking, which can affect regional policy decisions. 

      These barriers present a challenge for parents, teachers, and policymakers when it comes to equipping future generations with the tools they need to thrive in the digital age. However, there are ways parents and teachers can help students strike a healthy balance between digital literacy and the dangers of smartphone addiction.

      11 resources for parents and teachers to promote healthy smartphone usage

      Creating a positive relationship with devices like smartphones can help students improve their digital literacy while avoiding the negative effects of screen time and social media usage.

      1. According to Order of Saint Francis (OSF) Healthcare
        • Children under 2 years old should have no screen time, except for video chatting with family or friends. 
        • Children 2–5 years old should be allowed no more than 1 hour per day, co-viewing with a parent or sibling.
        • Children 5–17 years old should not exceed 2 hours per day, except for homework.
      2. Today’s Parent breaks screen time recommendations down in detail by age for kids and teens.
      3. Content creation is a core competency for digitally literate individuals. A master’s candidate at Georgia Institute of Technology put together a guide called Digital Storytelling: Supporting Digital Literacy in Grades 4–12 that discusses how to help refocus students from content consumption to content creation.
      4. In a 2020 report, Pew Research Center shares statistics about parenting kids in the digital age, including research broken down by age, ethnicity, platform, and device.
      5. The Mayo Clinic offers guidelines for screen time for older children as well as tips for encouraging digital literacy.
      6. In an effort to get kids to sit less and play more, the World Health Organization presents guidelines for screen time for kids under four. 
      7. For parents who need help learning how to control app usage and screen time on their kids’ phones, Consumer Reports has put together a resource with tips to help parents learn more about controlling smartphone usage. 
      8. In this 2021 insight, Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) and the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) present research about digital literacy in the 21st century, including guidance for improving digital literacy skills. 
      9. Science Direct shares research in a study that includes information about smartphone usage and its impact on grade point averages. 
      10. Harvard’s Berkman Klein Center for Internet and Society offers a variety of research and news articles, including topics like the effects of youth participation in a digital world
      11. This guide to cybersecurity for K–12 students from Cybersecurity Guide is a great way to promote safe app usage and build on one of the main competencies for digital literacy. 

      7 tips to help students develop healthy smartphone usage habits

      Here are seven tips to help parents instill healthy smartphone habits in their kids that can help foster digital literacy and prevent negative digital experiences based on the research presented by various thought leaders in technology, education, and social science.

      1. Create healthy, age-appropriate boundaries

      Similar to digital literacy frameworks, there isn’t a universally accepted approach to what is considered healthy screen time. When monitoring your own child’s tech smartphone usage, factors like their age and the availability of other devices should be considered. For example, for students without access to a computer a smartphone is their primary way to connect to other students and access the materials they need to succeed in the classroom. However, some distractions are also available to them on these devices. So striking a healthy balance is key. 

      Professor Russell Viner, President of Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health, told The Guardian that “one of the most critical things for parents to consider is whether screen time is having a detrimental impact on other activities like school, relationships, or other interests. … this is the case for a significant minority of children and young people.”

      If your child is doing well in school, maintaining social relationships, and engaging in extracurricular activities, screen time may not be a concern as compared with other kids who might use technology as an escape. So, set screen time limits according to your child’s behavior rather than strictly based on research studies.

      2. Model healthy smartphone usage

      Many students struggle with screen time limits at home, especially when their parents spend most of their time checking social media and email on their phones during meals and other family activities, and even during downtime. The adverse effects of screen time may be more harmful for kids, but they still affect people well into adulthood. So, one of the best ways to help your child curb unhealthy smartphone usage is to model healthier behaviors yourself.

      3. Encourage balancing content consumption with content creation activities

      If your child is a gamer or spends most of their screen time playing video games, it may be more productive to encourage them to explore game creation instead of trying to pry them away from their smartphone. This will expose them to creative problem-solving and coding activities that can benefit them as they continue their education and eventually start their career.

      There are a variety of resources available to parents and teens to help get them started on video game creation, many of which do not require coding knowledge.

      4. Use privacy controls and monitor apps

      For younger children, setting privacy controls and monitoring online activities are important to ensure their safety on connected devices. This is also a key competency for digital literacy, so it’s a great opportunity to engage your child in conversations about cybersecurity best practices.

      5. Watch together

      Most guides to screen time don’t count time spent watching video content with others, so watching content together can help children and parents spend more time with one another, promote open dialogue, and focus on content that is appropriate for all audiences.

      6. Explore face-to-face activities

      While this seems like common sense, students with less access to extracurricular activities are more likely to use their smartphones more on a daily basis. Since many students will inevitably gravitate toward their smartphones and social media, the best way to get them off their phones is to enroll them in activities that do not involve technology. From sports to arts, performance to community activities, there are many ways to engage teens outside of tech. Whether outdoors or indoors, engaging with others and getting out of the house is the most natural way to curb smartphone usage.

      7. Include screen time for homework

      When discussing screen time with a teen, it’s important to acknowledge that some children, especially those without laptops or desktop computers, rely on their smartphones to complete homework assignments. This is especially true for students from lower-income households. 

      According to Pew Research, “a ‘homework gap’ persists. Teens in lower-income homes spend less time using a computer for homework and more time doing homework on a phone than their peers from higher-income homes (34 minutes vs. 55 minutes on a computer and 21 minutes vs. 12 minutes on a phone per day, on average). That is likely at least partially due to lower computer ownership among teens in lower-income homes.”

      Striking a balance: Healthy smartphone usage that encourages digital literacy

      Striking a balance between healthy screen time and digital literacy will set students up for success. While there is still work to be done in defining the parameters of healthy interactions with devices, it’s essential not to take a one-size-fits-all approach to students and their smartphones. This is especially important when working with underrepresented groups who face even more significant barriers to digital literacy.

      Learning the benefits of smartphone usage can empower students to break into new fields, like STEM, which they may not find interesting based on their experiences in the classroom. Could your child’s obsession with gaming help guide them to learn to code? Will their time spent on YouTube help them learn content creation skills? That all depends on how they interact with their devices. So, instead of focusing solely on smartphones and screen time, it may be helpful to guide conversations about screen time around its possible benefits and encourage students to make the most of growing up in the digital age. 

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