United We Stand, Digitally Divided We Fall: Gold-standard digital literacy ensures access to technology regardless of age, gender and background

Promoting digital literacy be multi-stakeholder, multi-sectoral and engage parents and children themselves. Banner image: Shutterstock/Zyabich

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School closures during the pandemic made it quite clear that having access to and knowing how to use digital technology is not just a useful skill—it’s fundamental to participating as an active citizen in a democracy. Recognising this, more and more countries have been declaring access to the internet as a human right, for example Costa Rica, France and Greece.

Research suggests that children generally have their first experience with digital technologies before the age of two, often before they can walk or talk. All indicators of ICT use (such as computers per household, global internet traffic and hours spent online) have grown in the last decade. As the digital world expands, the “first-level digital divide”—the gap between those who have access to the internet and digital tools access and those who do not—is shrinking across the OECD.

However a second “digital divide” has emerged between individuals who moved to embrace a technology-rich world and those who have been left behind. This has resulted in a series of increasingly important inequalities in skills and usage patterns. Young people today spend much of their lives in digital environments: to create content and socialise; to play, communicate and learn; and to work and share. They are also increasingly required to navigate ambiguity, reconcile conflicting viewpoints and identify fake or misleading digital content. Not having these skills—not being digitally literate—thus comes with important implications for the individual, their communities and society more broadly.

In countries with near-universal internet access, a “third-level digital divide”—focusing on inequalities in material benefits and outcomes—is also becoming more noticeable. According to the OECD’s Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), disadvantaged students have lower digital skill levels on average and are less likely than advantaged students to use the internet to read the news or to obtain practical information. The gap between the “haves” and “have nots” can be seen even in very young children.

Developing and strengthening digital literacy through positive engagement with technologies is thus a key policy goal for all OECD countries.

Read more on the Forum Network: Children’s Voices are Key to Online Safety by Will Gardner, CEO, Children's Charity, Childnet International

Improving digital literacy

Supporting digital literacy from a policy perspective requires two elements:

  • Policies that support a broader digital environment: for example improving technological infrastructure (e.g. the cost, quality and speed of internet access; digitisation of businesses, which push training providers to adjust their teaching to meet labour market requirements; and the nature of digital content itself
  • Education-specific policies: measures that foster the development of children’s digital skills are those that provide ICT in schools; training for teachers; and support the integration of technologies into curricula

The gold standard is ensuring access and developing transferrable skills for sustainable engagement with digital technologies in all users, regardless of age, gender and background. Digital skills go beyond knowing how to use a digital device, and can be classified into four broad categories:

  • Operational skills: the basic technical skills needed to use the internet and other digital technologies
  • Information-navigation skills: the cognitive skills needed to search, find and understand information on the internet as well as verify and evaluate sources
  • Social skills: the ability to communicate and interact in digital environments and build digital social capital
  • Creative skills: the skills needed to create and share quality content in digital environments

These last points are critical. In many cases digital skills continue to be framed as “hard skills”, despite indications that "soft skills" make a key difference in terms of generating positive outcomes from technology use.

It takes a village

The most effective strategies to promote digital literacy are those that involve a multi-stakeholder, multi-sectoral approach, including engagement from parents and children themselves. Empowering parents to guide their children in digital environments requires them to have the necessary digital skills to do this effectively. This is challenging on two levels.

First, research has demonstrated that on average, parents tend to have higher digital literacy skills than their children until they reach around 12 years of age. After a short period of similar skill level, on average children have surpassed their parents by the age of 15. This systematically results in parents not necessarily being able to appropriately guide their older children in their online experiences.

Second, not all children are able to turn to their parents. Children from disadvantaged homes are more likely to have parents with lower digital skills, and those parents are less likely to be involved in their schooling. The 2018 PISA survey highlighted that conflicts with work schedules, childcare needs, transportation problems, lack of familiarity with the institution and not speaking the same language as the teacher are just some of the participation barriers faced by parents. This makes the involvement of schools and the broader community even more important for building digital skills.

One interesting example is Creators for Change, a global programme of fifty ambassadors aimed at educating adolescents about digital citizenship. A similar curriculum has been created in partnership with other businesses and organisations to enhance the digital skills of disadvantaged youth and their parents.

As we turn the page on school closures and the pandemic, we must keep the momentum going to ensure digital literacy for all. One-off efforts will not be enough, as today’s tablet and smartphone will be tomorrow’s AI and virtual classrooms. Developing—and sustaining—digital literacy is fundamental to the future of education, our communities, and our democracies themselves.

Read the report 21st-Century Readers: Developing Literacy Skills in a Digital World and find out more about the OECD's Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA)

Read the report 21st-Century Readers: Developing Literacy Skills in a Digital World

Watch the OECD Education and Skills webinar Ask and expert: How can we encourage an active and ethical digital generation? and view the whole series

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Tracey Burns

Senior Analyst, Directorate for Education and Skills, OECD

Tracey Burns is a Senior Analyst in the OECD's Centre for Educational Research and Innovation. She heads a portfolio of projects including Innovative Teaching for Effective Learning, 21st Century Children, and Trends Shaping Education. Until recently she was also responsible for their work on Governing Complex Education systems. Previous to her time at the OECD she worked on social determinants of health and well-being. As a Post-Doctoral Fellow at The University of British Colombia, Dr. Burns led a research team investigating newborn infants' responses to language, and was an award-winning lecturer on infant and child development. She is the recipient of numerous awards and honours, including The University of British Colombia Post-Doctoral Fellowship and the American Psychological Association Dissertation Research Awards. Tracey holds a B.A. from McGill University, Canada, and an M.A. and Doctor of Philosophy in psychology from Northeastern University, USA.