Blog Post

Chapter 7: Literacy - Are today's youth digital natives? (review by Heather Soyka)

Part of the HASTAC Scholars Collaborative Book Review of It’s Complicated: The Social Lives of Networked Teens by danah boyd

Review of Chapter 7: Literacy - Are today's youth digital natives?

by Heather Soyka


“Ginny!" said Mr. Weasley, flabbergasted. "Haven't I taught you anything? What have I always told you? Never trust anything that can think for itself if you can't see where it keeps its brain.”

–      Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, J. K. Rowling.


Literacy is important, and youths must become proficient across multiple digital literacies. The central argument by danah boyd in this chapter confronts and dismantles assumptions about age/generation and technological ability, and uncovers several overlapping areas of functional knowledge necessary for informed participation in a society framed by technology. This means unpacking and discarding fundamental assumptions about teens as being innately gifted with technological abilities, and thinking about how to provoke discussion and critical understanding of the invisible infrastructures and decisions that shape the information and daily experiences of youths online.

            Living within a technologically mediated landscape, the concept of the digital divide is now less concerned with just providing access to the internet, and more concerned with variations in skills, critical understanding, and use of technology. Understanding not only how to log on, but how to interpret, evaluate, and participate in various systems and streams of information is important to navigating daily life. In this chapter, boyd notes that the popular usage of the term  “digital natives” to describe teens as a homogenous group is political, problematic, and fraught with complications. The deployment of this term to describe fluency with technology (and information concepts) is discussed by boyd and others, as described on pages 177-180. By ignoring the broad spectrum of digital literacy across the youth population, this generationally based construction both ignores and reinforces inequalities between advantaged and disadvantaged teens. As boyd notes on pages 179-180, the use of digital natives as a concept to describe a generation also removes some societal responsibility for actively teaching teens (and adults) how to critically understand and navigate an increasingly networked world. She argues that far from being innocuous, the use of “digital natives” as a concept is dangerous because it supports the assumption that organized efforts to develop and increase digital literacies are unnecessary; by virtue of birth into a digital generation, the (flawed) assumption is that individual teens are naturally equipped with the needed proficiencies to successfully navigate and excel in a digital society. As an information professional, I fully agree with boyd’s concerns about multiple digital literacies.

            Comparing the use of Wikipedia and Google search, boyd highlights concerns related to teens and their critical awareness of online sources and the biases, constraints, and affordances of those resources. For example, as boyd relates on page 187,  simply telling teens that Wikipedia is not a “good” source without teaching the skills for evaluation and critical self-exploration does not allow for the development of personal literacies. Use of this framing without further instruction or context ignores the usefulness of Wikipedia in making the construction and negotiation of narratives visible, vibrant, accessible, and public. How youths (and adults) learn to evaluate and interpret information, both online and offline is important for the development of a range of digital competencies.

            This conversation relates closely to the concept of information literacy, which is defined by the American Library Association as “a set of abilities requiring individuals to recognize when information is needed and have the ability to locate, evaluate, and use effectively the needed information."[i] Beyond the development of technical skills, information literacy provides a conceptual framework for fluency and critical skills that include not just accessing resources, but evaluating and using those resources with an understanding of the origins, limits, and decisions that guide the use of the system that provides that information. Teens (and adults) may develop an intuitive understanding of how to navigate a particular system. However, in order to fully understand the resulting information, additional work must be performed by the information user in critically unpacking, evaluating and understanding the resource and its development, affordances, and limitations. Knowing that Google’s algorithms and other resources are man-made, non-neutral, and subject to a variety of decisions that affect the outcomes can be an opening for situating conversations about identifying biases and understanding what it means to locate trusted information.  

            Returning to the Harry Potter quote at the top of this review, it is vitally important for youths (and adults) to understand how to interpret and evaluate information, and to be able to assess the information in relationship to how and where it was located, and by whom it was constructed and disseminated. Teens and adults will benefit from further, broader discussion of the complicated factors that are part of constructing, shaping, and disseminating systems and networks, and how those invisible and invisible decisions and infrastructures shape the information that is generated and used. Reading this most recent output of boyd’s work is important for educators, parents, adults, and centrally, librarians. This chapter provides an engaging, interesting, and thoughtful entry point for conversations that surround this critical literacy issue related to technology use by teens and adults. My hope is that this book will provoke and extend related conversations that surround and support the development of multiple information and digital literacies.





[i] American Library Association. Presidential Committee on Information Literacy. Final Report. (Chicago: American Library Association, 1989.)


1 comment

The statement that you inserted at the end in relation to librarians really stuck out to me, because although boyd references that many students have been taught citations and which sources are reliable by their teachers in my own experience it is the librarians or "multi-media specialists" job in particular to initiate students into the ins and outs of not only using the physical resources of books and encyclopedias but also the electronic resources, such as Google, Encarta, and Galileo. At the same time, while boyd points out that many students were unsure about how to identify a useful or not useful citation, I wonder to what extent these teens are truly representative of not only what is being taught in schools, but also teens as a whole. The fact being that many students don't remember or can't readily recall the things that have been explained to them, someimtes, countless times by their teachers/instructors. It might in fact be that educators should be reenforcing the importance of citations and sources in a different way.