The Closed Loop of Digital Literacy Debate

Here’s a quiz for you, reader. The following quotes were written about popular books on the effect of technology on our behavior and culture. One was written in the late 1990s and one was written this year. See if you can guess which is which (no Googling, cheaters).

Our rapturous submission to digital technology has led to an atrophying of human capacities like empathy and self-­reflection, and the time has come to reassert ourselves, behave like adults and put technology in its place.


…computer-based environments for the practice of literacy are described as contributing to the decline of both reading and writing skills, as well as to individuals’ inability to concentrate over sustained periods, the rise of violence, and the progressive social alienation [of users].

Give up? The first quote is from Jonathan Franzen’s September review of Sherry Turkle’s “Reclaiming Conversation,” and the second is from Cynthia Selfe’s 1999 book “Technology and Literacy in the Twenty-First Century.”

Just like the comic at the top of this post, these quotes suggest that the conversation about technology’s effects on us — even learning technologies — seem locked in a closed loop. Indeed, as new technologies are presented for our use, such as the television, there are those who become concerned about their deleterious effects on us (youth in particular). Once the technology becomes normal, a newer one (say, video games) replaces it as the source of our children’s bad habits, and the cycle repeats.

Alexandra Samuel suggests a way out of this cycle. In her research on parental monitoring of children’s Internet use, she found that parents could be grouped into three broad categories: Enablers, who give their children plenty of access to devices; limiters, who strictly restrict their children’s access to the Internet; and mentors, parents who take an active role in guiding their children’s Internet use.

Samuel reports that she has found some telling correlations in her data between these parenting approaches and children’s online behaviors, noting that “mentors are more likely than limiters to talk with their kids about how to use technology or the Internet responsibly,” while “among school-aged kids,” it is the “children of limiters who are most likely to engage in problematic behavior: they’re twice as likely as the children of mentors to access porn, or to post rude or hostile comments online; they’re also three times as likely to go online and impersonate a classmate, peer, or adult.”

Although Samuel’s research focuses on the Internet (and seems limited to survey data), it isn’t hard to imagine that these principles could be extended to other domains of technology. More pointedly, they suggest a way out of the closed loop of hand-wringing and recrimination that seems to drive our public discourse about the role of technology in our lives. What if, rather than ignoring new technologies or bemoaning their pernicious influence on the children, we devoted our efforts to teaching children (and ourselves) how to use technology in mindful, critical ways?

To turn again to Selfe’s work from 1999, what is important in digital literacy is that we understand and teach “how to use technology, or relate to it, in ways that are productive and meaningful” (p. 144). As she says, if we ignore technology altogether, like Samuel’s limiters, or provide students with access to technology without guidance, as do enablers, we prevent them from developing a critical understanding of the role that technology plays in our culture, ultimately leaving them with no position from which to understand emerging technology other than fear or blind acceptance.

Banner image credit: xkcd