Research confirms children’s digital skills positively affect learning outcomes

Findings from 110 studies published in 64 countries point to the fact that digital skills play a key role for children’s and young people’s learning, participation and other opportunities. International research also reveals that the benefits of digital skills apply online and offline, potentially affecting multiple dimensions of children’s lives. There is also evidence that better digital skills can protect children from online risk of harm as well, although this evidence needs to be strengthened. 

2020-11-12 Youth SKILLS (ySKILLS) research data privacy, media literacy/education media specialist, organisations and industry, research, policy and decision makers, teachers, educators and professionals
A mother and her two children playing on a tablet and laughing

This worldwide research review, presented in a new report of the ySKILLS project, explores the factors that favour or hinder children’s acquisition of digital skills and impacts on their everyday lives. 
As expected, age matters: older children report higher levels of skills than the younger ones.

However, gender differences are not significant in most countries, thus contradicting the common-sense belief that boys are more naturally inclined than girls to like and be better at using technology. 
Parents’ practice of restrictive mediation is linked to children’s lower digital skills, while enabling mediation tends to be linked to better digital skills. Moreover, those children with earlier or broader access to ICT, including at home, have better digital skills. When ICT is more available in schools, children’s digital skills also tend to be better.

The impact of digital skills on children and young people’s everyday lives has been considerably less researched, namely in terms of their wellbeing. However, there is empirical evidence that greater digital skills are linked to better learning outcomes for children and empower them to better protect their privacy online. 

Although higher levels of digital skills are associated with more exposure to risky and potentially harmful online content, evidence also suggests that children with higher levels of digital skills are more able to cope with online risks. 

Leslie Haddon, from the London School of Economics and Political Science, and lead author of this systematic review of research, underlines: “This review provides a first overview of the entire field of young people’s digital skills, providing both summaries and details of all the studies and reflecting upon how skills have been measured, the types of studies conducted and what aspects of children’s lives have received more and less coverage.”

Digital skills, risks and wellbeing in Europe

Another ySKILLS report based on recent EU Kids Online data supported new findings on digital skills, risks and wellbeing among European children. Findings on 9- to-16-year-old children from 19 European countries do not indicate clear-cut differences with respect to the North-South digital divide, since country differences in children’s self-reported digital skills are small. 

In all countries but one, children who engage in more online activities – including communication, entertainment, education, and so on – report higher digital skills. In all countries, children score lower on digital skills when parents limit the online activities of their children.

Children’s feeling of self-confidence may also reflect on their digital abilities. The more children become familiar with the online environment and the more they feel safe online, the better knowledge and understanding of the internet they gain, supporting their acquisition of digital skills.
European findings also reveal that higher levels of digital skills are associated with more exposure to risky and potentially harmful online content, including racist and discriminatory content, self-harm and pro-anorexia content, and so on. The more skilled children who explore the internet to a greater extent may be more likely to encounter risks. However, digital skills can also help them avoid that risks translate into harm.

Giovanna Mascheroni, from the Catholic University of Milan, lead author of this ySKILLS report, underlines two innovative and unexpected findings: “For example, digital skills acquisition is associated with preference for online social interaction, thus challenging the fear that online communication is a waste of time. Also remarkable is the finding that among children who suffer from emotional problems, greater digital skills are associated with higher exposure to potentially harmful online content, thus pointing to the need for policy interventions aimed at fostering the resilience of vulnerable children.”

Recommendations for improving digital opportunities

Both ySKILLS reports include recommendations for improving digital opportunities, targeted at policy makers, parents and teachers. 

  • Strengthen children’s digital skills as a priority on the policy, research and public agenda, to ensure that children’s engagement with the internet results in wellbeing at various levels.
  • Encourage the design of both informal and formal educational programmes that promote digital skills through playful activities and that reinforce children’s self-confidence.
  • Raise parents’ awareness that a positive attitude towards ICT in the domestic environment contributes to higher digital skills and better abilities to cope with online risks.
  • Foster peer-to-peer education, since co-use of ICT with peers and learning from peers are associated with higher levels of digital skills.
  • Encourage new and longitudinal research on children’s wellbeing, to better understand whether and how digital skills can prevent exposure to online risks, and foster children’s resilience.
  • Understand what kind of digital skills can strengthen vulnerable children’s resilience and help them cope with higher exposure to online risks (a priority on research and policy agendas).
  • Pay particular attention to rural areas, where children may benefit from fewer opportunities to get involved in peer education or other forms of digital skills training, and to children suffering from emotional problems, who are seemingly more likely to be exposed to online risks.

Information about the project

Youth SKILLS (ySKILLS) is a large international Horizon 2020 research project aiming to understand what kinds of skills are needed among children and youth so that the long-term positive impact of the digital environment can be maximised. The project will provide recommendations for strategies that can be used by children, parents, schools, and people working with and for children to develop skills that will maximise positive opportunities and minimise the risk of harm.

Led by KU Leuven (Belgium), the project includes 14 Universities from 13 countries (Austria, Belgium, Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, Germany, Italy, Norway, Poland, Portugal, The Netherlands and United Kingdom) and European Schoolnet, a network of 34 Ministries of Education across Europe, who will actively engage in meeting the objectives of the project.

The reports

For accessing the full Reports on “Children’s and Young People’s Digital Skills: A systematic evidence review” and “Digital Skills, Risks and Wellbeing among European Children”, visit the ySKILLS project’s website - www.yskills.eu.

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