By |Published On: September 11th, 2023|Categories: Media Psychology, Pam Rutledge, School of Psychology, Social Media|

Digital literacy builds protective internal strengths for every tech use.


  • Parents are very concerned about media’s impact on kids’ mental health.
  • Digital literacy builds protective factors for healthy media engagement.
  • Digital literacy is often overlooked as a solution despite the psychological benefits.

Whether it’s AI, social media, or video games, the headlines are dire about the threats that media poses to our kids’ mental health. In fact, in a 2023 Pew Research Center study, parents’ main post-pandemic concern was their kids’ mental health (Minkin & Horowitz, 2023), and fingers often point to media use. With so much concern over the negative impact of media on mental health, why are we so slow to demand digital literacy training for every kid when evidence shows that it helps keep kids physically and psychologically safe by building resilience and empowering them with effective strategies to navigate problems? It’s hard to parse through research findings, conflicting interpretations, and the barrage of opinions—especially when you’re worried about your kids. It can also seem hard to translate a concept like digital literacy into action when you’re faced with an 8-year-old who wants a smartphone or a teenager continually disappearing into TikTok, but it doesn’t have to be.

Media makes an easy scapegoat for all our parenting anxieties. Our worries make us want to fix things. But suppressing media use doesn’t solve those problems, nor does it build protective skills. There’s no denying that media can have negative effects, but it can have positive ones, too. Controlling access to media to protect kids from social media, as proposed in some new regulations, is like holding a beachball underwater. The fix is temporary, artificial, and unsustainable. When that metaphorical ball of media pops back up, those kids you were protecting have learned nothing about how to deal with the challenges of a digital world—unless they improved their hacking skills. Investing in digital literacy, however, builds protective skills that enable kids to use media effectively and purposefully to prevent or offset problems.

What Is Digital Literacy?

Digital literacy is the knowledge and abilities necessary to successfully engage in or, as Aufderheide (2018) so eloquently said, have “critical autonomy” with any interaction with media or technology. Digital literacy training includes the ability to exercise critical thinking, develop self-knowledge and self-regulation, and build positive social skills.

The effect of digital literacy, however, is much more than gaining a laundry list of skills. Digital literacy skills combine to build internal strengths—feelings of competence, resilience, and self-reliance—that can protect against low self-esteemdepression, poor body images, unhealthy attitudes about gender and sexsubstance abuse, and violence (e.g., Bahramian et al., 2018) and promote personal growth and psychological well-being (e.g., Stamps, 2023).

How Does Digital Literacy Increase Well-Being?

Digital literacy increases well-being by meeting well-documented intrinsic psychological needs: autonomy (self-directed choices and evaluation), competence (belief in one’s ability to act and overcome obstacles), and social relatedness (emotional connection with others) (Deci & Ryan, 2013; Ryan & Deci, 2017). Digital literacy builds self-awareness, autonomy, critical thinking, and competence by teaching kids to:

  • Recognize when technology use is healthy and balanced rather than reactive.
  • Take charge of their behavior, empowering conscious choices and prioritizing.
  • Ask questions and think critically about what they see and do with media.
  • See behind the content and structure to identify hidden motivations and agendas.
  • Build social skills like kindness and empathy.
  • Provides strategies for dealing with bullies or inappropriate content.
  • Understand why certain technologies are physiologically hard to put down.
  • Be aware of emotional reactions that trigger negative behaviors, like self-doubt.
  • Understand the importance of boundaries—including personal behaviors, privacy, and content ownership.

Digital Literacy Skills Are Life Skills

Digital literacy builds a skillset that increases well-being by making kids smarter, emotionally stronger, and more competent and confident. These are not just media skills but important life skills that apply to everything they do. So why don’t parents demand the funding of digital literacy training when they are worrying about how to raise a child in a digital world? Why don’t politicians propose digital literacy as a solution to arm our kids for the future?

I hate to sound jaded, but let’s face it. Digital literacy doesn’t make nearly as compelling a headline as social media issues, deep fakes, and other media bogeymen. Digital literacy also isn’t a quick fix. You can’t just say, “There, that’ll do it,” and offload your parenting worries onto some new regulation or expectations that TikTok is going to do your job for you. But when we overlook digital literacy, we do so at our kids’ peril. We risk them missing out on not just the skills but the psychological growth and increased self-awareness and maturity that digital literacy training instills. We are denying our kids the intangibles that could actually help keep them safe.

This article also appeared on


Aufderheide, P. (2018). Digital literacy: From a report of the national leadership conference on digital literacy. In Digital Literacy Around the World (pp. 79-86). Routledge.

Bahramian, E., Mazaheri, M. A., & Hasanzadeh, A. (2018). The relationship between digital literacy and psychological well-being in adolescent girls in Semirom city. J Educ Health Promot, 7, 148.

Deci, E. L., & Ryan, R. M. (2013). Intrinsic motivation and self-determination in human behavior. Springer Science & Business Media.

Minkin, R., & Horowitz, J. M. (2023). Parenting in America Today

Ryan, R. M., & Deci, E. L. (2017). Self-determination theory: Basic psychological needs in motivation, development, and wellness. Guilford publications.

Stamps, D. L. (2023). The nexus between Black media consumers’ racial identity, critical and digital digital literacy skills, and psychological well-being. Information, Communication & Society, 1-17.

About the Author: Pam Rutledge

Pamela Rutledge, PhD, is a scholar-practitioner, integrating her expertise in media psychology with 20+ years as a media producer. A member of the faculty at Fielding Graduate University since 2008, Dr. Rutledge teaches in the areas of brand psychology, audience engagement and narrative meaning. Dr. Rutledge consults with entertainment companies, such as 20th Century Fox Films and Warner Bros., on data strategies and audience narratives. Dr. Rutledge has published both academic and popular work, including a text on positive psychology and psychological appeal for fans of the Twilight Saga and resilience in the Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. She has also written book chapters on meaning-making and fandom, transmedia narrative engagement, and positive media psychology. She authors “Positively Media” for Psychology Today and is also a frequent expert source on media use and popular culture for media outlets such as The NY Times, The BBC World and ABC News. She holds a PhD and an MBA.

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