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Toomas Liivamägi, Luunja Secondary School.
Report CO:RE Short Report on Key Topics CO:RE at UTARTU Published: 31 May 2022

Digital skills: Needed by everyone, possessed by some

Digital skills are important for personal and professional growth, employability, and active participation in society. They help people work, learn, keep up with the news and stay in touch with friends and family, but also, increasingly, to perform a wide range of daily chores such as ordering food or making a doctor’s appointment.

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The United Nations define digital skills as “the ability to use ICTs in ways that help individuals to achieve beneficial, high-quality outcomes in everyday life for themselves and others” while  reducing “potential harm associated with more negative aspects of digital engagement” [1]. Despite their importance, we know little about how these skills are acquired or how to foster them. We know even less about the positive outcomes of digital skills, for instance, how they impact children’s and young people’s wellbeing or social and civic participation.

To better understand the impact of digital skills on children’s and young people’s lives, the EC-funded project ySKILLS aims to acquire extensive knowledge and better measurement of digital skills and to study the impact of these skills on children’s wellbeing. ySKILLS defines digital skills as a diverse set of technical/operational, information navigation, communication and interaction, and content creation and production skills, which are unequally distributed and influenced by individual, social and country characteristics [2].

In its first two years, ySKILLS carried out different activities including a systematic review of evidence [3], interviews with experts from the education sector and the labour market [4], and roundtables with young people [5] to obtain a better understanding of current conceptualisations and ways of measuring and fostering digital skills. The key findings from these tasks are summarised in the fresh CO:RE short report [6].

How do children’s and young people’s digital skills vary?

From the ySKILLS systematic review we learned that digital skills are understood and, therefore, measured in different ways. We also observed that most research carried out so far has been generated in the USA and Europe and has mainly aimed at understanding how digital skills are acquired rather than exploring the impact of digital skills on the lives of children and young people [3].

Regarding digital skills acquisition, there is strong evidence that children’s digital skills improve with age [3]. Children from higher socio-economic status (SES) households also have higher digital skills. Despite the fact that boys feel more confident in their technological abilities than girls do, gender differences tend to disappear when digital skills are actually measured (e.g., through performance tests). Furthermore, earlier and wider access to digital technologies (e.g., at school, home, youth centres, etc.) seems to have a positive impact on the development of digital skills.

Do digital skills affect children’s and young people’s wellbeing?

Notably, only a few studies have examined the (positive) impact of digital skills on aspects such as wellbeing, better learning outcomes, civic and political engagement, or protecting one’s privacy online and, unfortunately, their results are inconclusive. Interestingly, despite stronger evidence showing that better digital skills are linked to more online risks, better digital skills are not necessarily related to more harm. On the contrary, better digital skills may help to reduce harm and manage online risks [3].

Research also shows that children and young people do not use technologies in a vacuum. Indeed, many co-use technology with peers and friends, while at home or at school different forms of social mediation (guidance and/or rules) may apply [7]. In this respect, there is some evidence that co-using technologies with peers can have a positive impact on children’s technological and related social competences. Moreover, when parents and teachers support children’s agency and guide them in using internet platforms, applications and social media for different purposes [8], children can acquire better digital skills. By contrast, restrictive mediation (e.g., setting rules, time limits, and bans on online activities or contents) is linked to lower digital skills [4].

How to achieve digital inclusion for all? 

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Interviews with experts [4] and focus groups with teenagers [5] conducted in the ySKILLS project point out the risk of exacerbating existing social and digital inequalities. The experts specially voiced concern over children from socio-economically disadvantaged backgrounds who often remain excluded from (adequate) access to digital technologies and good quality education. They feared that in the future, these children might not only be left behind in the labour market but will also lack opportunities for social and political participation. Teenagers, on their turn, worried about elderly people such as their own grandparents, whom they considered “the least digitally skilled” people they know.

I would like to add my grandparents. They are also old, of course. But because they didn't get it, they can't work with it […], they didn't grow up with it, I think these people really are the example of the least digitally skilled.

(Teenager, Belgium)

Both experts and teenagers concluded that current efforts to boost digital skills are deficient. They stressed that teachers need more and better opportunities for professional development, if they are to support children and young people in acquiring better digital skills.

The current programmes offered in school and university education are often not adequate. The digital world follows logics that are not those of classical education.

(Labour market expert, Italy)

Participants also reflected that education should be a shared responsibility, especially because digital skills education is needed not only by children but also by adults, especially those in less privileged or vulnerable situations, such as the elderly or the unemployed. In this sense, it is important to train youth and social workers, librarians and other specialists who can play a vital role in helping all citizens upskill their digital skills.

Want to know more? Read the full short report.

About the authors Verónica Donoso, Signe Opermann & Veronika Kalmus

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CO:RE Educational stakeholders at European Schoolnet

Verónica Donoso, PhD, is a Research Associate at the Institute for Media Studies (KU Leuven) and a Digital Literacy and Child Online Safety consultant at European Schoolnet. She has more than 20 years of experience in the field of children, digital technologies and internet safety. Through her career she has advised UNICEF, United Nations and the European Commission, among others, and she is a member of the Global Kids Online International Advisory Group. She is the ySKILLS Work Package 3 leader and the CO:RE Work Package 9 co-Leader.

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CO:RE Key topics at University of Tartu

Signe Opermann, PhD, is a researcher in Media Sociology at the Institute of Social Studies, the University of Tartu. She is a member of the Work Package 4 team and contributes to editing CO:RE short reports and blog posts.

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CO:RE Key topics at University of Tartu

Veronika Kalmus, PhD, is a full professor of Sociology at the Institute of Social Studies, the University of Tartu. Since 2007, she has been the leader of the Estonian team of the EU Kids Online network. She is the Work Package 4 Leader (Key Topics), coordinates the publication of CO:RE short reports and blog posts, and contributes to editing the reports.

  1. International Telecommunication Union. (2018). Measuring the information society report, https://www.itu.int/en/ITU-D/Statistics/Documents/publications/misr2018/MISR-2018-Vol-1-E.pdf

  2. d’Haenens, L. (2022). Towards a better understanding of digital skills: On inequalities and their impact. Zenodo. https://doi.org/10.5281/zenodo.5821079

  3. Haddon, L., Cino, D., Doyle, M-A., Livingstone, S., Mascheroni, G., & Stoilova, M. (2020). Children’s and young people’s digital skills: A systematic evidence review. Zenodo. https://doi.org/10.5281/zenodo.4274654

  4. Donoso, V., Pyżalski, J., Walter, N., Retzmann, N., Iwanicka, A., d’Haenens, L., & Bartkowiak, K. (2020). Report on interviews with experts on digital skills in schools and on the labour market. Zenodo. https://doi.org/10.5281/zenodo.5226910

  5. Donoso, V., Retzmann, N., Joris, W., & d’Haenens, L. (2021). Digital skills: An inventory of actors and factors. Zenodo. https://doi.org/10.5281/zenodo.4525639

  6. Donoso, V. (2022). Youth digital skills: Insights from the ySKILLS project. (CO:RE Short Report Series on Key Topics). Hamburg: Leibniz-Institut für Medienforschung | Hans-Bredow-Institut (HBI); CO:RE - Children Online: Research and Evidence. https://doi.org/10.21241/ssoar.78951 

  7. Mascheroni, G. (2020, 30 November). How is parental mediation related to children’s digital skills? What is the relation between digital skills and exposure to online risks? [Blog]. ySKILLS. https://yskills.eu/how-is-parental-mediation-related-to-childrens-digital-skills-what-is-the-relation-between-digital-skills-and-exposure-to-online-risks/

  8. Kuldas, S., Sargioti, A., Milosevic, T., & O’Higgins Norman, J. (2021). A review and content validation of 10 measurement scales for parental mediation of children’s Internet use. International Journal of Communication, 15: 4062–4084.

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