What is computer literacy in today’s world?

I’m always curious about how my kids use technology. Part of it is my endless curiosity for what is coming in the future. And part is my interest in how we define education. But there’s also schadenfreude: I am so sick of Millennials telling me how stupid I am about technology. I’m just really relishing those first moments when Millennials feel old. So I look for them all the time.

There’s not a lot about life on the farm that is similar to life in Swarthmore, but boys playing together – that’s similar. And in rural life and city life I have noticed that my sons have no patience for kids who don’t get a lot of computer time. To my sons, these kids are illiterate. So I’ve been collecting moments when my kids have been shocked by how their peers use a computer.

Minecraft. Little kids build with Minecraft. Older kids play PVP (player vs player) or move on to another game. PVP is competitive and soul crushing and is the online version of a school playground where the big kids and little kids are fighting for the same equipment. When kids come over to our house and want build stuff on Minecraft my sons know that a) the kid never gets any time on their computer and b) they are going to mess up the shortcuts my kids have on their keyboard.

Sex ed. If you play PVP you have to talk to people. Steam puts people on teams based on how high-quality their headset is and much they talk during the game. My son says his headset is for big kids (he has a good one) but his talk rate is for little kids (he never shuts up). So sometimes he gets paired with kids a lot older than he is, which he loves, because the kids play at a higher level.

But the big kids hate little kids, and just last week my son got called “Squeaker Dick” which is a reference to his voice (pre-pubescent) and the penis (which all boys must mention in every social exchange). My kids have a wide knowledge of sex. So he hurled back an insult accompanied by a link to a dildo on Amazon.

The kids get sex info from YouTubers like Leafy if Here who is supposedly talking about CS:GO. And they get sex info from watching political humor (I just explained the plot of Fatal Attraction to two open-mouthed teenaged boys watching an SNL spoof of Kellyanne Conway.) So when a kid was visiting and Leafy accused another YouTuber of being covered by an STD, the kid said, “What’s an STD?”

My older son said, “If you don’t know then you should get checked.” (You might not think this is funny, but he’s just repeating a public service ad he sees on YouTube all the time.) Then my son said, “You can get free STD testing at this site.” My son brought up the site and the other kid had no idea how to even read the site. To my kids, that is illiteracy.

Web Design. My kids both start a YouTube channel when they have an idea – in the same way that I open a Word document. My younger son has started ten million channels, and each time he starts a new channel, he gets a new avatar, a new name, a new email (which he manages a new intro, and a new logo. He has no patience for kids who say, “I love your intro – can you make me one?” Because “DUUUUUDDDEEE that took me like four days to make!” But he can make a kid a logo in just a few minutes. And while it impresses his friends, he does wonder what his friends do with their YouTube channels if they don’t know this stuff.

He emailed his friend a logo. Almost. I told my son about Shift so he didn’t have to keep logging in and out of emails and then I could forward him info from his cello teacher. And I heard him admonishing his friend: “You HAVE to use email! You need it to get money from PayPal and to read stuff adults send.”

User interface. A friend’s kid came to our house to see what a day of homeschooling is like. I said, “What do you want to do?” and he said he wanted to learn how to write code, but he couldn’t because he didn’t have software. I googled: kids write code free. We found Scratch and he was on his way.

Except he wasn’t because he did not have basic knowledge for how software interface works, and he got frustrated. My younger son showed him how to use the software. My younger son doesn’t want to program; he just knows how to navigate the interface from using other software. My son was blown away by the kid’s incompetence: “Mom. He can’t even turn his object around with the mouse.”

So, look, I have said for a long time that there is too much to learn, and we can’t all learn everything. I have said that the idea of being well-rounded is myopic. In the Information Age trying to be well rounded is a distraction. And this is a great example.

The same way you are appalled when a kid has not read Shakespeare, my son is appalled when a kid has not learned about the Urban Dictionary. Both are windows into a given era. And both are massive linguistic undertakings.

You might not want your kid to know how to navigate a computer like my kids. You might want your kid to read Shakespeare. But if you want your kid to feel literate and educated you’d best not try to define what that is for his or her generation. Because you don’t know. And you might find out that you are computer illiterate. I think I might be, too.

39 replies
  1. Cassie
    Cassie says:

    I needed to read this. My 6 year old son has autism (high functioning) and all of his therapists are always telling me that he needs less screen time in all forms (we don’t have a TV but he spends a good amount of time on the computer). Space is his obsession, and he watches really dry, technical documentaries about space and just soaks it up. My husband, who is a high school math teacher, says our son knows more about science than many of his students. My husband is also teaching him to play online video games so he isn’t the only kid who doesn’t know how. I do see that screen time makes his stimming and hyperactivity a little worse, but the flip side is that he wouldn’t have his space passion or his encyclopedic knowledge on it without the computer. Until he’s old enough to read textbooks, this is his access to it. Thanks for bringing it back to my attention.

    • Cáit
      Cáit says:

      I’m glad this gave you confidence.
      Screen time is so personal– it brings up the deepest questions about who we are, how we relate to the larger culture, how we communicate, it’s just not something an outsider can tell us for our families, we need to face these questions for ourselves. Mothering is very hard and very personal.
      My kids are screen free because that’s where my journey took me.

  2. Terri T.
    Terri T. says:

    This is a great article (and you can’t truly be computer illiterate — you get it!). Computers, smartphones, the internet, etc are an integral part of modern life; I would no more restrict access to them than I would restrict access to the books on our shelves. So many people see only the negatives of screen time and the dangers of the Internet. But there’s so much more to it than that. These are essential life skills – as important as learning to cook and clean and all the other things we teach our kids to navigate daily life.

  3. Tracy
    Tracy says:

    >”You HAVE to use email! You need it to get money from PayPal and to read stuff adults send” 😁

    Good read.

    I grew up in Kenya and there they leapfrogged the whole email/paypal thing and went straight to mobile & mobile payments (mpesa). Last month I was involved in a fundraiser with old classmates and everyone else was paying with mobiles and discussing on whatsapp while I was the one using paypal and email. Sure felt like I was the computer illiterate tech dinosaur. The irony being I’m the one who actually works in the tech industry 😖

  4. YesMyKidsAreSocialized
    YesMyKidsAreSocialized says:

    A lot of my kids’ learning happens on the computer/ipad through various resources like Khan Academy, BrainPoP, Audiobook apps and Scratch. I can’t imagine limiting any sort of learning opportunity for my kids, but we have met various other kids through activities my kids are involved in that have never heard of Scratch, which is a very basic intro to programming using a drag and drop interface. One can find tutorials on youtube if they don’t understand where to start. But, I have to remind myself that most kids in school don’t freely have access to learn things like Scratch. So many parents don’t even know about it as a free resource. Some parents pay for their kids to learn Scratch through local outside the school learning camps. My kids are so advanced through their own trial and error that they could teach a class.

    Gaming tech is so different from when I was a kid and it is ever evolving. For instance, my kids get to play virtual reality video games at one of their science learning centers. How cool is that? They also play regular video games like WoW as well as Xbox, but I would hesitate to tell anyone that it is anything other than a source of enjoyment for my kids. I love that for many kids video games are a launching point for becoming entrepreneurial, utilizing youtube to create a following based on a shared love of a video game, and I do think and agree that learning happens through video games.

    • Terri T.
      Terri T. says:

      I definitely agree about video games. They provide socialization experience too. All our neighborhood boys and about half the parents are currently playing Clash Royale. It’s great interaction. Same with social media. My son doesn’t do much social media (his choice) but he does use it to talk to friends that don’t live nearby, including other homeschoolers. The interaction is no less meaningful because it’s online. He has special needs and socializing with peers is often a challenge so I’m happy for him to have all the opportunities he can get.

      • YesMyKidsAreSocialized
        YesMyKidsAreSocialized says:

        I agree! Not only has my oldest made friends online through her Scratch activities, but I have a few very good friends that I have connected with online. Without this blog or other social platforms it is doubtful I would have ever met these wonderful individuals.

    • Jenn Gold
      Jenn Gold says:

      Hi YMKAS,

      I am one of those non-techie types. But I do know I need ot expose my kids to more. Would you be willing to give me an idea of what I should be doing now? My kids are 3 and 5 years old.

      • YesMyKidsAreSocialized
        YesMyKidsAreSocialized says:

        Hi Jenn! I’d say it depends on your kids for sure before you decide to invest in anything. My older two children were able to handle tech at 3 years old starting with leapfrog apps. Every app or game they played from ages 3-6 reinforced whatever we were learning, and most leapfrog apps/games are meant to be educational. At four they had kindles, and at 5 they had Ipads and they took very good care of their technology. The apps and programs they have used have gotten more complex as their skills developed. Now at nearly 10 and 7.5 they use high school-college level design software like Fusion360, AutoCad, Photoshop etc. They still love BrainPoP (hundreds of educational videos and activities) and Scratch (drag and drop programming). They also use Khan Academy to go along with whatever math they are working on. They are more on a PC than they are on Ipads.

        My youngest on the other hand…. she has broken two leapfrog explorers, and two leappads over the last two years!!! She is 5 now and I am not making any more tech investments until she is able to appropriately care for the product. Now she uses my heavy duty protected Ipad. We like the Toca apps, Lumio apps, epic! app for audiobooks, and Endless Alphabet.

        I hope that helps!!! Children are so naturally curious, and tech these days (even with non-techie parents) is so user friendly that they will figure it out really quickly.

        • Cáit
          Cáit says:

          Hey, a fellow traveler!
          All the other homeschool moms in my group are determined for their kids to learn ‘coding.’
          I say great computer science is a great field but it’s really mathematics. The best way to develop a genius mathematical brain is fresh air sunshine nursery rhymes playing with sticks.
          I want my children to have pre-WWII attention spans.
          But everyone of us is going forward or backward. Gen-x and y mothers had lots of commercial television but no internet, so we’re either trying to go back in time screen free, or forward in time, 2017 smart technology,

        • marta
          marta says:

          My main issue with technology is the way “technology believers” advance it as the saviour of humanity, like Elon Musk and his Mars plans. In my opinion these are people who lack a certain history knowledge and culture, which usually not only gives you empathy and common sense but a certain wariness of the glorious futures ahead.

          All the examples of computer literacy PT gives here about her kids (and which are far from being exceptional; rather, unfortunately, more and more the norm amongst 21st century kids and adults under 40) have so many things that are, in my view, objectionable that I’ll link this very recent article by George Monbiot:


          It is both an anatomy and a warning: the lack of experience (of real life, as opposed to screen life) most people have, and willingly choose to have, has some pretty serious consequences.

  5. Michael Ahuja
    Michael Ahuja says:

    Computer Literacy is considered to be a very important skill to possess while in the first world. Employers want their workers to have basic computer skills because their company becomes ever more dependent on computers. But the basic computer skills, well the standards and bar of what that is today and tomorrow is always changing. One is expected to know so much more about computer in 2017 compared to that of 2007. IT KEEPS INCREASING THE BAR.

  6. marta
    marta says:

    I’ve been reading this blog for years for the provocative and honest approach to education but somehow, in the last few months, I’ve come to realise PT’s mindset is just the same she accuses the school system of:

    There’s one good, modern, futuristic way of doing things; success (=money + recognition + data to support all that) depends solely on it. If you don’t embark on that ship, you don’t have a clue about living life in the 21st century and your kids will be… well, poor and leftout. Losers, really.

    PT’s school is technology and screentime.

  7. Mark W.
    Mark W. says:

    I’m also curious how young people use technology. And I’m curious if they’re able to navigate without it. Sometimes literally. I recently struck up a conversation with a young man at the checkout register as business was slow and there was no one behind me. I think the conversation started with the weather and then morphed into him telling me about a long car trip he had in which he encountered an ice and snow storm in January a year or two ago. I told him I had the same experience in January many Januarys before he was born. Then somehow we got into a conversation on trip route and I asked him if he used a GPS device or a map and if he knew how to read maps. He laughed and said his GPS went out on him and he had to buy and learn how to read maps. While learning map reading, he told me he discovered that interstates with even numbers run East/West and those with odd numbers run North/South. Of course but it’s not something that’s readily apparent or ‘said’ by a GPS. Advanced technology is fine as long as you know some basic underlying principles and have some familiarity with the old technology as a backup. I miss some of the old technology as there are things that you can do with it that the new technology has ‘abandoned’.

  8. jessica
    jessica says:

    For the parents who have household youtube creators-
    Youtube Spaces is a google run shop in major cities that connects creators with weekly courses to help improve their skills, extra support to continue to build their audiences, all with the added benefit of local networking.

  9. Review
    Review says:

    Nowadays, technology revolution makes people lazy. They forget to read literature, go outside. All things is started to be simple.
    Computer skills is a good way to the future, but do not forget about selfdevelopment like: reading, different papers writing, ect.
    Here are pros and cons of computer literacy. However, it is better to know than not to know.

    • Terri T.
      Terri T. says:

      I strongly disagree with this. I think it sets up a false dichotomy — technology vs “real life”. I am a true techie – I work in I.T. and I use technology in nearly every aspect of my personal life as well. But I also do the same activities that everyone else here does – work, take care of my home and family, homeschool and have a number of hobbies (reading, scrapbooking, games). Technology and life aren’t mutually exclusive, and, in fact, technology helps me to do more of the things I love.

      To take your example – I read around 50 books a year. A lot of those are ebooks or audio books on my smartphone. Because of technology I have a book with me all the time. I wouldn’t be able to read so much if I didn’t. I also read blogs, listen to podcasts and participate on GoodReads — all about books. That’s how I find new books and insure that the books I’m reading are actually good ones. I use my library’s online features to request and check out books? Needless to say, that saves me a lot of time and money. I also participate in an online book club. It’s not only more convenient than an in-person club but it’s also more specialized. I don’t have to worry about finding enough people with my specific interests in my hometown. That’s never a problem on the Internet.

      I can say the same kinds of things about nearly every area of my life (and my family’s). Technology enhances it. Makes it not just easier (which I don’t think is a bad thing), but better. Yes, it’s certainly possible to use technology to be “lazy”, to disconnect and/or escape from real life. Then again, the same can be said of a good book. It’s really all in how you use it.

      • YesMyKidsAreSocialized
        YesMyKidsAreSocialized says:

        Exactly this, Terri. I don’t buy the argument that it is an either/or scenario. But I don’t think it’s particularly healthy to keep tweens and teens from having access to technology. There seems to be underlying fears in some arguments that are totally unfounded. Does anyone here really think that my kids don’t know how to play hide and seek, read for pleasure, or have a conversation simply because I allow technology into our lives? If so, they would be very wrong. Do others not realize that Penelope’s tech savvy kids were raised on a farm in a very rural area with plenty of access to the outside? I can only guess that people making the argument against screen time either don’t have any kids, or their kids are mature adults and well past the technology our kids have access to now, or they are parents to very young children and have limited experience with which to base future decisions regarding technology.

        • Cáit
          Cáit says:

          I know that many excellent mothers give unlimited screen time. But I am really crazy…like way beyond campaign for commercial free childhood types– lightweights in my opinion. For example when people tell me we can compare internet 2.0 to the emergence of books, I start thinking about how printed word has interrupted oral culture.
          I was very influenced by three books: the plug in drug, idle parenting, and angelicum good books guide. I also had a bad experience with television when my son was very young.
          Of course that’s the thing, I had a bad experience. I truly believe other mothers when they tell me the in their lives technology is working beautifully for their family. I present screen free childhood as a realistic option for mothers who feel called in that direction.

          • YesMyKidsAreSocialized
            YesMyKidsAreSocialized says:

            Cait, what age does childhood end for you? I think I understand where you are coming from. I knew some mothers who would only let their children play with wood toys, not even legos. The argument for why escapes me, but they were very adamant that plastic toys were horrible inventions.

            My kids self-regulate their screen time, like Bostonian, my kids will play video games and then I’ll hear an alarm go off and when I ask what it was for they will tell me they set their Ipad timers so they would stop playing at a certain time since they have other plans laid out. They can go very long stretches of time (months?) without playing.

            And now that we are moving across country and staying in corporate housing for a few months, the video game systems will have to go to storage until we find our new place. Unless their dad gets sneaky and mails one of them to our temporary digs without telling me. :)

  10. Bostonian
    Bostonian says:

    Perhaps part of computer literacy is being able to tell when you’re wasting too much time playing games on the computer. You know, like financial literacy includes being able to tell when you’re wasting too much money.

    Last weekend my son had a lot of things he wanted to work on. He also wanted to play some computer games. He came up with a plan in the morning, and every time he went to take a scheduled game break, he would ask me to come and pull him back out of the games after n minutes. He got everything on his plan done.

  11. Mark W.
    Mark W. says:

    Computer literacy as used in this post explores the various uses of computers by humans. However it is really the humans themselves who are the computers (one who computes). The hardware and software interface have constantly evolved over my lifetime from the time I took a Fortran IV class in college (mainframe accessed by terminal with paper output (printed and punch card) to now. I have a good overall knowledge so I’ve been able to build my own computer starting with the case itself, install OS’s including Linux, and install and use various types of programs. I never embraced programming although I did take a couple of visual basic classes. They gave me an appreciation of other programming languages like C. The bottom line for me is I want (and appreciate) good hardware and software to achieve a desired result. I’ve learned it’s most important to learn enough to ask the right people the right questions. I had the opportunity to work with some very knowledgeable specialists. I was given a task once to make a determination on what would happen at high voltage on a certain assembly due to surface contamination (or something to that effect). I looked through a reference book I had (Reference Data for Radio Engineers) and really wasn’t getting anywhere as I wasn’t an EE. I asked around my group and one other engineer suggested I see Dr. Earle upstairs as he had done work and written a paper while at JPL. So I go up to see him and he’s got his feet on the desk in deep thought. I joke around with him about his window view and ask my question. He gets out the same book I mentioned above and starts doing calculations. He comes up with an answer. I’ll never forget that experience because it made it so clear to me that I could have had a wall of books and computer and couldn’t have done what he did.
    Also there’s a good book with the title ‘Mindstorms: Children, Computers, and Powerful Ideas’ written by computer scientist Seymour Papert. He argues for the benefits of teaching computer literacy in primary and secondary education in it. The first edition was published in 1980 and is still applicable today. It can be read and downloaded online at http://mindstorms.media.mit.edu/ . There’s also a good background article here – https://www.wired.com/2007/03/the_origins_of_/ .

  12. programvb.com
    programvb.com says:

    Screen time can become an addiction just like anything in life. It meets a need and depending on the human using the technology it can be an engaging learning tool or an escape from reality or both. My boys have very different personalities and their screen time reflects that. The oldest is only interested in gaming when he has friends to play with him. He is social and the solitary aspect quickly becomes boring for him. My middle son is an introvert so he is happy to play alone and he is thrilled by the challenge of a new game. At 5 he would play 10 hours a day if I let him. We have limits in our home because I don’t think my children have the maturity to make those decisions yet. I think it’s a very real possibility that my middle son may struggle more with relationships later in life. But if he has a screen time addiction that will be the symptom of the problem rather than the cause. Technology is not good or bad. It’s what we do with it.

  13. Muriel
    Muriel says:

    I plan to distract my son from screens as much as possible, until he is old enough to decides what he wants to do.
    There’s something very relaxing and calming in doing just one thing, whether it is reading, playing, observing, thinking.
    And I want to instil this sense of calm in my son.

    I do believe technology is important, and I also work in tech.
    The internet is full of knowledge that it would be a shame to ignore.
    But we have all our lifes to access it.
    However we only have one opportunity to learn to be idle and learn how far our imagination can take us.
    It’s when we are children.

    • Squeak
      Squeak says:

      I agree, when you look around kids are already consumed with technology and it simply wastes a lot of their time. Much of their day is consumed with video games, tablets, and smartphones. They have no concept of having fun aside from technology. It’s a tragedy in my opinion.

  14. Kathy Donchak
    Kathy Donchak says:

    My kids have a lot of screen time, but that helped one of them learn to read with his strengths. As I watched his natural strengths show up in spatial awareness and pattern recognition in minecraft, it helped me find a method to support him. I think what is most important is to let them find the way they learn best, and you can’t do that by micromanaging everything. I had to unlearn what I thought I knew about education when we started homeschooling. Your blog has been a big part of that.

  15. Wordeng
    Wordeng says:

    It do agree with the concept of computer literacy advantages with kids as many popular technology brand bring products to interact with kids. i do think that it leverage the mind sharpness of kids but there should not be over limit

  16. Toms
    Toms says:

    Education alone not enough and technical education is vital today, as we are discussing the kids luckily very sharp with laptop, mobiles, Xbox Gaming and so on. They are so responsive with Gadgets use and don’t need to worry about kids performance in Tech world today. kids are build in trained.

  17. Toms
    Toms says:

    Education alone not enough and technical education is vital today, as we are discussing the kids luckily very sharp with laptop, mobiles, Xbox Gaming and so on. They are so responsive with Gadgets use and don’t need to worry about kids performance in Tech world today. kids are build in trained.

  18. Review
    Review says:

    Computer technology is advancing faster than ever before, and it’s very easy to be left behind if you don’t take the time to become at least semi-literate when it comes to computers.

  19. asdfsdg
    asdfsdg says:

    Am I the only one who finds this blog incredibly narcissistic and pathetic? I’ve been browsing through the posts and its arguably just you harping on, trying to justify your parenting choices (and some of them are arguably horrible).

    On one hand, you’re preaching that kids must not dabble in order to succeed. Ice skating is a waste of time. Learning math is a waste of time. A second language is a waste of time. On the other hand you give your kids unlimited gaming time? Are you really for real?

    My goodness, in that time your kids spent playing video games they could have picked up that second language already. Or picked up that extra skill they never knew they were passionate about.

    And to top it off, bragging about your son’s ability to trash talk with strangers anonymously on the internet? To ‘do the pvp’?? Oh my god, as a gamer myself that really cracks me up. It would be one thing if your son lead a 40-man raid group in WoW and managed to coordinate everyone to team up and kill a tough boss after about 100 tries that actually needs some modicum of organization, determination, social skills and team work, but nope. What an important skill, to learn to be a toxic anonymous loser on the internet.

    But yes, please continue to delude yourself into thinking that all this screen time actually helps ‘computer literacy’. Please. That computer literacy skill that you think is so important and so difficult that your kids need to practice– take it from someone who has actually designed user interface. The more people who can use it, the more money we make. We design it, and are still designing it to make it easier. And easier. And easier. Even a monkey can learn how to swipe up and down. Google? The only thing you need to teach a child is the fact that it’s all there. Can’t read a site? Maybe that is the fault of the web designer and not the kid, after all the site is in english, is it not? “My friends can’t even use a mouse” oh my god puh leeze. Give that kid a week and he’d have caught up to your kids “skills”.

    I’m a millennial and a hard-core gamer at some stage of my life. Take it from me, you’ve been had. Playing online games has about the same effect on your kids social skills as taking that ice skating class, just for fun. Or going to public school (gasp!) Only at least in real life they can interact with people to their face instead of hurling anonymous insults because they are unable to handle losing (or winning). They can get some exercise instead of being hunched over a computer screen.

    Kudos to your kids though, for pulling this one over you. I for one am definitely going to limit my kid’s screen time, particularly video game time and absolutely NO PVP till they are over 18. I’d even research the different gaming communities (by playing myself, of course) and make sure I know what my kid would be exposed to. Different games have starkly different communities depending on gameplay, and as I mentioned before, pvp games tend to attract the most toxic of players.

    But I guess you’re too busy trying to reassure your decisions by writing post after post after post extolling the virtues of video games. I pity whoever is taken in by your bullshit.

    Btw, some background about me: Millennial, serial gamer, bilingual and work in ‘tech’. I love games, but they are designed to be addictive, and any of you parents out there still trying to delude yourselves into thinking unlimited video games are ‘beneficial’, please look at how Steve Jobs raised his own kids.

    One last thing- English isn’t my first language so my writing skills aren’t the greatest. Thank god my parents forced me to learn a second language instead of just my native tongue which according to you is enough to get by in life.

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