Web literacy is within our grasp. We constantly adapt to new software and hardware, at home and in public. Intuitive design makes it possible for hundreds of millions of people to use their first smartphone without manuals, or in some cases, the ability to read.
But the basic skills we pick up along the way don’t give us everything we need to tap into the opportunities – and avoid the risks – of digital life. The newly connected have a steep list of things to learn, and even experts sometimes need instructions for how to make things work on the Web.
We also need to be able to critically analyze information we see online, as social media debacles over “fake news” the past year made clear. Even young people who are ‘digital natives’ don’t automatically know when to ask questions or how to validate what they see.
Platforms can offer more transparency about where content comes from and support studies to improve “conversational health”, but individuals and communities also need to know for themselves how to be safe online. It is especially urgent for people at risk of cyberbullying, harassment or government persecution, but anyone could end up vulnerable. If you use one of the most commonly used passwords, your personal and financial information is already at risk. Are we, and our children, as safe as we can be?
Do we know when to shut off our screens? In 2017, tech companies faced industry criticism for getting us so effectively hooked on their services. The apps we spend the most time with don’t always make us happy, and yet we continue clicking and scrolling.
People everywhere need all these skills and more to engage in broader discussions about the economic structures and power dynamics of the Web, which impact all of our lives. We need universal Web literacy. We need to support educators, as well as teach each other. It is only becoming more vital as new people come online worldwide, every day.