Right now, you and I have almost instantaneous access to more information than at any other point in human history. In fact, the amount of information available to us doubles every 1-2 years, which has led some to believe that we’ll eventually be able to read minds and shape our environment at will.
But that’s a lot of speculation (not to mention science fiction). From a real-world perspective, how can you possibly make sense of this “information flood”? Then, how can you use all of this knowledge to make smarter buying decisions? And how you can stay safe while doing it?
The short answer to these questions is digital literacy. In this guide, we’ll explore what it is, why it is important, and how to develop your digital literacy skills.
What Is Digital Literacy and Why Is It Important?
A person is considered literate if they can read and write. But really, this is just the tip of the iceberg. Why? Because these skills will also help someone learn to think well, which can improve their overall quality of life.
In other words, reading and writing are just tools that open a huge number of possibilities for all of us. Using them, we’re able to think better about the world in which we live and make more informed decisions (whether regarding the purchases we make, or any other aspect of our life).
Similarly, digital literacy also acts as a toolset to help us thrive in a decidedly modern world. But what does this term mean? As Wikipedia defines it:
“Digital literacy is the knowledge, skills, and behaviors used in a broad range of digital devices such as smartphones, tablets, laptops and desktop PCs, all of which are seen as network rather than computing devices.
A digitally literate person will possess a range of digital skills, knowledge of the basic principles of computing devices, skills in using computer networks, an ability to engage in online communities and social networks while adhering to behavioral protocols, be able to find, capture and evaluate information, an understanding of the societal issues raised by digital technologies (such as big data), and possess critical thinking skills.”
As we can see, becoming digitally literate isn’t about learning what to think; it’s about acquiring a skill set that helps us learn how to think. But as you might imagine, digital literacy is a big topic, most of which is far outside the scope of one article.
Instead, our goal here is to identify main concepts surrounding digital literacy and provide you with a bird’s eye view of the situation. We’ll talk about key things you should know if you’re regularly using the internet; things that if you don’t understand, might put you in peril as a consumer. Or, as Inc. magazine recently noted, we’ll help you become a digital native.
Then, if you’re looking to explore further, we’ll provide some top-notch links you can use to increase your digital literacy this year.
5 Steps to Develop Your Digital Literacy Skills
1. Understand the Importance of Digital Literacy
If you’re over the age of 30, then it’s likely that you didn’t grow up constantly surrounded by modern technology like the internet, smartphones, tablets, Facebook, etc. This means that, at least to some extent, you’ve had to learn how to fold this technology into your life. And the older we are, the more difficult this process can be.
For many of us, when we learn that we’re less-than-informed about a certain topic, it’s easy for our ego to kick in, throw a temper tantrum, and convince us that “we don’t need to learn that!” But don’t let this happen to you. How? It’s all about perspective.
Instead of viewing the learning process as a giant wall to scale, look at it as an exciting opportunity to learn something new. You can even think about how this new knowledge will expand your horizons and help you save money.
Every day that you dig in your heels and refuse to learn the basics of digital literacy, you’re making it easier to fall victim to scams, make ill-informed purchases, and shrink your ability to stay abreast in this fast-paced world.
Where you can learn more:
2. Recognize That You’re Your Own Worst Enemy
Understanding that you need to learn new technology was only your first mental hurdle to becoming digitally literate. Not only does you brain like to convince you that you don’t need to learn anything new, it also has a nasty habit of making you believe that you’re always right. Even if you find evidence that directly contradicts your beliefs!
This is a phenomenon known as cognitive bias, and based on our experience, it’s one of the biggest reasons that we fall for scams. But it doesn’t stop there! In order to become a well-rounded, digitally literate consumer, you’ll also need to learn to control your emotions, understand and recognize your emotional state, and understanding your specific personality traits.
One of the beautiful things about being human is that we’re all different. What makes me more susceptible to scams might be completely inconsequential to you, and vice-versa.
So, becoming a smarter consumer isn’t only about learning something new; it’s just as much about learning where our strengths and weaknesses are, accepting them, and learning to overcome them.
3. Start with the Basics of Digital Literacy
Now that you’ve given yourself permission to become digitally literate and have taken a deep look at internal factors that might be holding you back, it’s time to start digging into the basics.
This includes learning rudimentary terms you’ll frequently encounter, as well as basic practices that you’ll need to implement in order to stay safe and scam-free online. This includes internet-based terms like spam, phishing, firewall, SSL, cookies, anti-virus software, and ISP.
Finally, this also involves learning the safest online practices, such as never opening an email from an unknown sender (or if you do, never clicking on any links it contains), always making sure you have a secure connection when transmitting sensitive information (such as credit card info, social security number, etc.), and understanding proper social sharing habits (like never posting a status that you’re leaving town, which is a red alert for potential thieves).
Taken together, this doesn’t just help you shop smarter, it helps keep everyone in your family safe as well.
Whether you’re learning to play an instrument, drive a car, or stay scam-free when shopping online, improvement is about starting with a solid foundation. Instead, if you decide to skip this step, you might find that you’re prone to mistakes that could have otherwise been simple to avoid.
Remember, you’re using this as a base for understanding how to think, not what to think!
Where you can learn more:
- The Top 30 Internet Terms for Beginners, 2015
- Seven Useful Habits for a Safer Internet
- CNET’s Security Checklist
- 12 Tips for Safe Social Networking
- Protecting Your Children from Cyber Bullying, Sexting, & Social Media
4. Build on the Basics
Alright, you’ve got a solid base to work with. You’ve tuned in to yourself and understand what makes you tick, and you know what to do (and not to do) when you’re online.
At this point, you’re prepared to start learning about advanced—but extremely common—sales and advertising tactics that millions of consumers fall prey to each year. This includes specifics like sneaky “free” trials and recurring shipping programs, as well as broader topics, like how image placement on websites can trigger certain reactions in your brain.
Thousands of companies use these tactics to deceive consumers. And while they might technically be legal, they definitely have reputations for making customers feel scammed.
The good news is that as long as you understand a few key concepts, you can recognize these tactics a mile away, regardless of the product that’s being sold or the company who manufactures it. This process not only allows you to use concrete knowledge to avoid scams, but also helps you transition into applying basic concepts to
In other words, learning this information and applying it in your everyday life can help you think outside the box. Which is what we’ll wrap up with next.
Where you can learn more:
- Free Trial Offer Scam: What It Is and How to Avoid It
- How Infomercials Convince You to Buy
- How to Tell If an Online Store Is Legit
5. Embrace Critical Thinking
Dutch philosopher Baruch Spinoza thought that, “the very act of understanding information was believing it. We may, he thought, be able to change our minds afterwards, say when we come across evidence to the contrary, but until that time we believe everything.”
In layman’s terms? Until we’re proven wrong, you and I believe just about everything we see or hear. And even then (as with cognitive bias, which we talked about earlier), we might continue believing false information.
The point is this: We might be chained by Spinoza’s psychological theory, but as long as we’re willing to keep pushing ourselves, what we’ve learned here today can help us break free from mindsets that don’t just make us more susceptible to scams, but actually limit our life’s potential.
After all, we’re bombarded with tons of new information each and every day, and by learning to capture, evaluate, and draw better conclusions from it (the very definition of digital literacy), we can start making better decisions about almost any aspect of life.
Despite all of these benefits, like any other skill, if you don’t use it, you lose it. Sure, you can rest on your laurels and let all your hard work slowly fade away. Or, you can use what you’ve learned here as a springboard—not just to avoid scams and shop smarter, but to live a happier, healthier, and more involved life.
Where you can learn more:
- How To Train Your Mind To Think Critically and Form Your Own Opinions
- How to Spot Deceptive Advertising Language
- How to Check Facts & Never Fall for False Information Again