Education, regulation, legislation: supporting young people's wellbeing in the digital world

29 Jun 2022
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Our new report shows that young people with the highest critical digital literacy are almost three times more likely to report high mental wellbeing than those with the lowest critical digital literacy.

Almost half of 10 to 15-year-olds spend three or more hours online on a typical school day (ONS, 2021). However, opportunities to critically engage with media within the school setting are limited, and researchers suggest this has implications for children’s rights (Cannon et al., 2020). Indeed, a recent report for the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Media Literacy found that 52% of teachers believe their pupils are not media literate and called for the introduction of a Media Literacy Education Bill.

We surveyed nearly 7,500 young people aged 11 to 16 in schools across the UK in late 2021, focusing on literacy, critical digital literacy (for example, attitudes to reading online content, confidence in posting online and digital civility) and wellbeing. The report shows the importance of both literacy and critical digital literacy engagement when navigating online environments.

Key findings included:

  • High literacy engagement (i.e. enjoying reading and writing and doing so frequently) was associated with better critical digital literacy attitudes and behaviours, with more young people most engaged in literacy showing high critical digital literacy engagement (CDLE).[1]
  • In turn, compared with young people with low critical digital literacy engagement, nearly three times as many young people with high critical digital literacy had high mental wellbeing (30.2% vs. 11.6%).

Other findings included:

  • On and offline reading and writing inform each other. 3 in 5 (59.3%) young people were inspired to read by something online. However, while a similar percentage write fiction on paper and on screen (21% vs 19%), fewer than 3 in 10 (29%) felt confident posting their own writing online. This increased to 2 in 5 (39%) of those with the highest literacy engagement.
  • Online formats are an important source of self-expression. Almost twice as many boys as girls said chatting while playing video games helped them communicate better with friends (62.5% vs 35.7%). While around 3 in 10 boys and girls felt writing on social media helped them express themselves, this increased to nearly half (47%) of those who describe their gender another way.
  • Only half of young people take the time to think about whether news stories are true. 3 in 5 young people (59%) said they wouldn’t share a news story if they weren’t sure it was true. However, only half (53%) take the time to think about whether news stories are true or not, increasing to 7 in 10 (71%) of those with high literacy engagement.
  • Many, but not all, young people feel empowered by online communication. 1 in 4 (27%) agree that social media makes them feel like they can make a change in the world, increasing to nearly 1 in 3 (32%) of those receiving free school meals (FSMs). However, significantly more boys than girls agree their online life opens up possibilities for them (46% vs 36%).

In a world in which the digital environment forms an integral part of many young people’s lives, definitions of literacy must expand beyond reading, writing, speaking and listening to include the critical and creative skills to communicate effectively online. Such findings suggest that young people with low literacy engagement may be at risk of missing out in the digital age, and that supporting confident, critical approaches to reading, writing and communicating both on and offline may have the potential to support wellbeing.

We would like to thank The Sir Halley Stewart Trust for their support for this research[2], which is particularly timely in helping support effective digital engagement alongside the changes in regulation anticipated in the Online Safety Bill. Indeed, if we are to give all young people the best chance of experiencing the benefits of the digital world, we cannot rely on regulation and legislation alone; education, including critical digital literacy, must also play a part.

[1] A statistically significant, small positive correlation.

[2] This work was undertaken by the National Literacy Trust and was funded by the Sir Halley Stewart Trust. The views expressed within this blog and the report are those of the authors and not necessarily those of the Sir Halley Stewart Trust.