What Is Digital Literacy and Why It’s Crucial to Us Now

Navigating the world has always been dependent on particular sets of skills.

It used to be that you learned your ABCs, and you were good to go. But in the past decades, it all changed. To make it, you now need your ABCDs, where D stands for Digital.

As the internet’s impact on our lives grows, digital literacy is taking center stage and shaping how we experience everything.

However, not everyone gets to be digitally literate, and certainly, not all countries encourage such skills.

Let’s take a closer look at the matter and what you can do to make sure you’re fit for the digital era.

What is digital literacy

Digital literacy, also known as cyber literacy, is an umbrella term that refers to the ability to use computer technologies effectively and to understand the implications of your actions.

Digital literacy encompasses different areas, from recognition to evaluation to management, and skills like:

      • Being able to critically use technology
      • Navigating through various online forums
      • Handling different types of devices
      • Understanding how the digital world works
      • Being able to creatively and inventively manipulate technology to solve problems
      • Finding relevant information in the digital space
      • Correctly identifying information in different types of media and formats
      • Evaluating digital resources
      • Using digital tools in a safe and ethical way
      • Effectively creating and sharing information through digital tools
      • Acknowledging online sources

These skills imply a more in-depth awareness of digital efficiency, online expression, and security habits.

Contrary to popular belief, being digitally literate is not tied to age or job. Using technology and understanding it are two different things.

And while digital literacy is relatively new, it’s still closely linked to other types of literacy. Together, they help us understand the world, connect with others, and develop personal assets.

Reading and writing
This is the traditional definition of literacy, which is the ability to read and write. These skills are developed over time and should be practiced regularly.
Numerical literacy
This is all about being able to use basic mathematical equations and logic in everyday life. Numerical literacy is reflected in skills like solving problems, using logic, understanding charts, diagrams, and data.
Health literacy
Health literacy helps people understand the health care system, take their medication, follow doctor’s instructions, effectively communicating symptoms and worries, and many others.
Financial literacy
Financial literacy means having the knowledge, skills, and confidence to make responsible financial decisions by studying the available resources.
Media literacy
Whether it’s TV, video games, or social media, media is constructed with a specific message at its core. Media literacy refers to the ability to understand that message and the context behind it.
Cultural literacy
This ability is defined differently by each culture. But cultural literacy refers to those skills that help understand language, etiquette, communication methods, historical background, and others. It’s a way to nurture empathy and cohesion within society.
Physical and emotional literacy
Physical literacy refers to the development and repeated use of fine motor skills, while emotional literacy consists of identifying, recognizing, and expressing feelings in interhuman relationships. These skills are fundamentally interconnected as two facets of human expression.

As is the case with other literacy types, digital literacy skills can be acquired through different methods, like curriculums, personal engagement, and experiences. They can then be honed for many career paths, and they in demand now more than ever.

As more people, corporations, and governments fall prey to cyberattacks; it’s clear that we need a more cyber aware population.

We need a better understanding of the gadgets we use daily and use that knowledge to:

And much more. Getting familiar with digital terminology, threats, and opportunities is critical.

Understanding the elements of digital literacy

Learning is often thought of a linear, starting from point A and leading to point B through a preset track. But digital literacy is continually adapting and expanding to fit our tech, needs, norms, and expectations.

This is why a binary system, like digitally literate-digitally illiterate, is rarely enough to describe people’s skill set.

Instead, it makes more sense to focus on a set of guiding elements. And Dr. Doug Belshaw’s model provides a holistic approach to digital literacy through eight aspects of cyber literacy:

  1. Cognitive: Knowing how to use technology and recognizing common digital tools.
  2. Confident: Understanding how our digital spaces differ from the offline world.
  3. Cultural: Understanding the culture, like history, language, or etiquette of the internet and other digital environments.
  4. Constructive: Understanding how content can be appropriated, reused, and remixed while being familiar with fair use and copyright laws.
  5. Communicative: Being familiar with the communication norms and expectations of various online tools.
  6. Civic: Having the knowledge and ability to use digital environments to prepare ourselves and others to participate in social movements.
  7. Critical: Using reasoning skills to question, analyze, and evaluate digital content, tools, and applications.
  8. Creative: Learning how to do things in new ways using online tools and environments.

Belshaw’s model also makes for a suitable learning framework for improving digital literacy fluency, despite the fact that it’s still a widely debated topic.

We need to start young for digital literacy

While cybersecurity in corporate industries has taken center stage, state-run organizations have been falling behind. This includes education and vocational organizations.

The situation is especially worrying since we underestimated the extent to which cybercriminals are targeting children.

Young ones are increasingly victims of identity theft and cyberbullying. And just like we teach children basic safety lessons, we need to do more to ensure their online safety. After all, they do start consuming content online at increasingly younger ages.

Statistic: Most popular online content categories among children worldwide from June 2019 through May 2020 | Statista Find more statistics at Statista

In this era of rapid technological advancement, there’s the belief that children need to immerse themselves in technology from a young age to learn skills they’ll probably use throughout their lives. And nearly half of American children aged three and four use the internet at home.

But it comes with a cost.

About one in four Americans will experience identity theft or fraud before they reach 18, as hackers target their clean credit histories.

Even worse, about one in five American young people experience unwanted online exposure to sexually explicit material. And one child in nine will experience online sexual solicitation.

It’s clear that cyberattacks are no longer just concerns for companies and governments. And kids can soak up basic cybersecurity skills as quickly as they pick up new technologies. They just need proper guidance.

But this guidance often comes under the wrong framework.

Measuring digital literacy levels

Boosting digital literacy isn’t a one-size-fits-all type of situation. But with the ever-evolving digital space, it’s hard to talk about universal evergreen guidelines that suit every need.

Digital literacy, and especially cyber risk literacy, needs to be improved through a balanced combination of key factors. And experts have identified five of them:

      • Public motivation
      • Government policy
      • Educational system
      • Labor market
      • Population inclusivity

The Oliver Wyman Forum has quantified these metrics in the Cyber Risk Literacy and Education Index, and they ranked countries’ overall cyber savviness and awareness.

Researchers evaluated the public’s access to digital tools and the training programs available to develop cyber risk awareness to measure good cyber-risk literacy. Together, they show if a population is aware of cyber safety practices and is incentivized to apply them.

Now, let’s go over these 5 factors.

Public motivation

Cyber literacy requires on-going practice, so it’s no wonder the general population’s commitment to cybersecurity is an essential metric in the index.

Since casual users are the most significant risk group, there needs to be more push on the general public to protect themselves.

It’s important for people going online to understand the kind of cyber risks they’re taking on, such as:

      • Identify theft
      • Cyberbullying
      • Key loggers
      • Malware
      • Social engineering
      • Information sharing on social media.

Experts say that academic research today lacks an understanding of how day-to-day users view cyber threats.

Government policy

Case in point: the cybersecurity challenges the Biden administration faces.

To be effective, cybersecurity needs legislation and government support. So, government policies on improving cyber literacy and cyber risk strategy are a great metric to evaluate.

This is also important for national and state agencies to consider. Experts find that a stable and sustainable government policy is essential for setting direction and making long-term digital literacy investments.

Educational system

This metric focuses on curricula for mandated or encouraged cyber risk instruction.

Both the formal education system and the vocational system could benefit from exposing their student body to cybersecurity and encouraging them to pick a STEM career (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics).

But the primary and secondary levels could also have a focus on cyber literacy.

As schools incorporate technology into their classrooms, teachers need the training to help students identify cyber risks and stay safe. But rather than relying on standalone classes, cyber risk education should be incorporated in a multitude of courses, so the learnings are reinforced across different subjects.

Vocational training in cyber risk should also address the upskilling required to maintain a competitive workforce.

Such training should be promoted at both the government and employer levels.

Labor market

The labor market often plays a substantial role in helping to encourage education in a particular area. And it can make up for the lack of schooling amended by the government.

The degree to which employers drive demand for cyber literacy skills can directly factor in increasing people’s awareness and motivation on cyber issues. It can also help evaluate digital literacy among the workforce.

And now, there is a real need for employees with a greater knowledge of tech across different branches.

When searching for cybersecurity training for employees, a program that goes beyond cybersecurity awareness and focuses on skills and implementation is the best bet.

Population inclusivity

Equal access to education has always been regarded as a staple of human rights. And digital literacy shouldn’t be any different.

Experts have previously stressed that digital inclusivity is a major global issue that impacts other areas such as education, healthcare, and the financial system. Inclusivity remains a crucial concern for both developed and developing countries.

The top 15 countries for cyber risk literacy

Source: Oliver Wyman Forum Cyber Risk Literacy and Education Index


With more and more of our lives moving online, universal digital literacy will be as important for nations’ prosperity and security in the 21st century as the ability to read and write was in the 20th.

And some countries are taking the lead in making cybersecurity more accessible to the general public, with Singapore being one such example.

Singapore’s educational system starts cyber wellness instruction in the first year of primary school and integrates it across multiple subjects rather than treating it as a standalone topic.

Cyber Wellness is part of the Character and Citizenship Education program. It focuses on students’ safety as they’re online and promotes finding a balance between online and offline activities. The curriculum combines online safety practices with netiquette and good digital habits.

The UK leads a similar program that focuses more on online security and best practices.

The UK’s National Cyber Security Centre has developed the CyberFist program that teaches children as young as 11 how to explore their passion for tech by introducing them to the fast-paced world of cybersecurity.

The topics range from essential online safety tips to oversharing on social media to recognizing vulnerabilities.

Programs such as these have no doubt helped the countries perform well in the Cyber Risk Literacy and Education Index created by the Oliver Wyman Forum.

The index assesses 50 geographies, including the European Union, on the cyber literacy of their population. It also takes into account other factors, like policies that promote safe online habits.


How old were you when you started going online? Do you feel like you now master your digital skills? Are there areas you’d like to improve? Let me know in the comments below.

Until next time, stay safe and secure!

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