EU Science Hub

Boosting children’s digital literacy - an urgent task for schools

Using digital technologies for learning in schools improves parents' perceptions of these technologies, which in turn helps children's digital learning
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Jul 11 2018

Using digital technologies for learning in schools improves parents' perceptions of these technologies, which in turn helps children's digital learning and supports a healthier and more meaningful use of digital devices.  

  • Parents’ attitudes to digital tech shape children's learning environment and attitudes
  • Parents see digital evolution as inevitable but very challenging
  • Schools are seen instrumental in promoting optimal use of digital technologies
  • The European Commission launched several initiatives to boost digital skills

These are among the results of a JRC study based on interviews with families in 21 countries.

Children of all ages are using the Internet at an increasing rate, and this is most noticeable among very young children, between 0 and 8 year olds.

Pre-schoolers now use the Internet too, and children under the age of 2 often use the Internet through their parents’ devices.

A new JRC study on the use of digital technologies by young children urges schools and teachers to enhance children’s digital and media literacy as early as possible.

It also highlights the importance of developing a digital competence curriculum and digital pedagogies as part of teachers' training.

Children's digital skills mirror those of their parents

Based on interviews with 234 families in 21 countries, the study concludes that children’s digital skills develop from a very young age, mostly at home, based on observing and mirroring parents and older siblings’ behaviour. 

Parents' attitudes towards digital technologies have an important role in the strategies they adopt towards their children's use of digital tools, and thus also in shaping their children's digital skills.

"We have seen that parents try to balance and safeguard their children’s digital engagement more or less successfully.

Parental strategies to children's use of digital devices - open, permissive, supportive, restrictive or ‘laissez faire’ - rely on numerous interlinked factors, from the parents’ skills, knowledge, attitudes and perceptions towards digital technologies to their personal experiences and socio-economic background", explains JRC researcher Stephane Chaudron.

As contextual factors play an important role in shaping attitudes and skills towards digital technologies, results are very uneven from one family to another and across regions and countries.

Parents require guidance on the use of digital technologies

Most parents see the digital evolution as inevitable, useful but challenging.

The majority believe that mastering digital technologies and developing digital skills are fundamental for their children.

However, they are sometimes challenged by digital technology and by their children's use of digital devices.

They struggle to understand where the line lies between constructive use of digital technologies that can support their children's learning, and unhealthy use of these devices.

Consequently, parental strategies to control their children’s use of digital devices are mainly motivated by fears of possible negative effects on eyesight, concentration, cognitive capacities and social behaviour – fears that only partially match real risks.

From some of the country-specific studies it emerged that parents do not always communicate with their children about risks related to the use of digital technology because they believe this conversation could trigger children’s curiosity and prompt them to engage in risky activities.

The majority of parents said that they would welcome guidance to help them support the healthy and meaningful development of their children's use of digital devices.

Schools are instrumental for promoting healthy and meaningful use of digital devices

Some parents underline that schools are in a strategic position to provide the guidance they need and believe that schools are key in developing the digital skills that their children need.

Parents tend to support their children’s digital learning opportunities more and have more positive views of the technologies if schools integrate meaningfully digital technology in their homework requests.

Based on sample studies from different EU countries, the JRC study confirms that schools can have a major influence on the acquisition of digital competences - including creative use, when digital technologies are integrated as active learning tools as opposed to mere information sources.

Developing digital competence already at kindergarten level can also help to raise awareness on safety issues and build critical thinking among children regarding content and devices that they use.

Country profiles

The study includes 21 country profiles covering all countries that took part in the survey.

The profiles provide a short overview of the socio-economic context, Internet usage rate and schooling system for each country, followed by a summary of the findings as reported by the national research groups.

European Commission initiatives in support of digital competences

The JRC provides tools and solutions to define and improve citizen's digital competences and to make better use of digital technologies for teaching and learning.

The JRC has produced competence frameworks to allow citizens (DigComp), teachers (DigCompEdu), schools and educational organisations (DigCompOrg) as well as education and employment authorities to assess and improve these skills.

SELFIE is a tool that schools can use to assess their strengths and weaknesses in using digital technologies for learning. 

It can also be useful for implementing the recommendations included in this report.

After a successful pilot in 2017, the Digital Education Action Plan foresees the scaling up of SELFIE to one million users by the end of 2019.

Furthermore, the European Framework for the Digital Competence of Educators (DigCompEdu), directed towards all levels of education, can guide and support teachers in integrating digital technologies meaningfully into teaching and learning activities.

In January 2018 the European Commission launched the Digital Education Action Plan, which outlines EU measures to help education systems adapt to the digital transformation.

It promotes better use of digital technologies for teaching, digital competences among students and teachers.

It underlines the need for young Europeans who are enthusiastic users of the web, apps and games to learn about the underlying structures e.g. basic algorithms and computational thinking to become active digital creators and leaders.

As part of the Digital Single Market, the European Commission promotes various initiatives aimed at increasing digital skills for the workforce and for citizens.

One of these initiatives is the EU Code Week, a voluntary grass-root movement promoting computational thinking, coding and tech related activities. Code Week Ambassadors coordinate the initiative in their countries.

Anyone can organize events to show motivated people how to create their own app, program a robot, or make anything they dream of. The European Commission aims to bring Code Week to 50% of all schools by 2020.

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