The new digital literacy for digital natives

I have been working with my son on a research about perfect pitch. He was was constantly emailing hundreds of research subjects.

I told him he needs to use special software to keep track of a mailing list that big.

He told me to shut up.

After he lost track of 30 people, I went on strike. No more help until you start using a mass email service.

I thought the hardest part about helping with his research would be that I have very little science education. But I’m starting to love the science (fascinating to me: people with perfect pitch have autism.) And actually the hardest part of helping him has been predicting the reaches and limits of his digital literacy.


He sent emails to lots of professors asking for mentoring help, which is a really important life skill, but also a very difficult skill to learn, so I was happy to help him compose emails. What I didn’t expect is that I’d have to help him organize his inbox. My son literally had every single email he ever received in his inbox. I considered just dumping the account and starting fresh, but we have already sent out too many emails.

So I taught him to archive everything instead of deleting it. I taught him how to make folders for each project and how to star emails that have to be answered that day. I worried that this is the equivalent of teaching my kid cursive. My whole workday revolves around email, but maybe email is going to be like voicemail and no one will use it.

Then I discovered that colleges are teaching kids how to organize their email. Kids have little reason to use email before college, but most communication with college professors and administrators is via email.  Colleges realized that if they didn’t teach kids how to keep track of email conversations the college would have to find a new way to talk to students. So now there are email boot camps during orientation to get freshmen up to speed.


Learning new skills is almost always faster if you look for tools online. For example, kids achieve a higher degree of competence in string instruments at an earlier age because there are so many tools to improve rhythm, tuning, syncopation, triads, scale degrees, etc.

Another example is science experiments. There are so many on YouTube that the utility of doing them yourself starts to feel like a waste of time. Some videos are so good even I can’t stop watching. Digital literacy means developing an instinct for what’s available online that might be more efficient but also more fun. My kids found the reportedly best DNA tests for finding ancestry and they studied the results of their own DNA instead of reading a chapter in a textbook on the sociology of genetics.

Wasted time

The Internet, at this point, is a big garbage dump of information, and we need to be good at sorting trash. Each person develops individual quirks and preferences for search, but that takes time. Wasted time, actually. Because you only discover new ways to search when you have a lot of time on your hands and are willing to try oddball approaches.

I have been using Google Scholar for searches related to my blog post topics because I learn so much more than if I search in regular Google. My kids use YouTube to search for any information that a kid could share with someone else. And we instinctively know that Wikipedia is a reliable source for things that are not controversial.

Search is instinctive and that instinct comes with practice. False political ads had an impact because so many people don’t know how to find real information online.

It would be great if we could let everyone determine for themselves whether information is true or not. But The New York Times says people can’t determine for themselves, especially older users. A study in Science recently found that it’s possible “an entire cohort of Americans” lacks the digital smarts to distinguish made-up garbage from the truth on Facebook.

Beware: the gap in ability to judge information is not really a function of age. It’s a function of how much time people have spent online learning to tell the difference between reliable and unreliable content. People who didn’t grow up online have a difficult time. But the kids who are not allowed to search aimlessly online will have those same difficulties. That’s what digital literacy is today: being able to identify high-quality content.

My son and I made a deal that he’d work on his research while I wrote a post. But when I asked what he has accomplished he said, “Um. I have been just sort of reading online.” Normally I would scream at him for being oblivious and an obsessive procrastinator. But because of this post, I was calm. I am telling myself he never could have found such interesting data about pitch if he hadn’t spent more than a decade searching for interesting data about anything.

15 replies
  1. Jim Grey
    Jim Grey says:

    I am better at sussing out high-quality content from most of my age peers simply because I’ve been online for so long, both in years since I started (> 30) and in time spent.

    But I did not suss out bad-quality content once when it counted. I got a new car. A lot had changed about the tech in cars since I bought my last car, which was quite old when I traded it in on this one.

    I’m driving back from visiting my son at Purdue when I see that I’m almost out of gas. But I knew a gas station was ahead. I pulled in, got out, and tried to open my gas door — and it wouldn’t budge. You press it in and it pops open, and it wouldn’t press in.

    I whipped out my phone and asked the Internet what to do for my model and year of car. The first hit: some dude on YouTube who said, “This happens sometimes, just pry it open.” He demonstrated. Looked great.

    I tried it and promptly broke my gas door.

    Next video in the search? And the three after that? They all said “unlock your doors.” Apparently on my car if the doors are locked, you can’t open the gas door. Who knows why. I never lock my doors when I get gas but apparently I’d accidentally hit the button on the fob. When I hit the unlock button, the latch worked perfectly.

  2. Ali Hidir
    Ali Hidir says:

    In the information society, which is formed by the rapid renewal and development of digital technologies, some issues come to the forefront of individuals. Digital literacy is one of them. Digital literacy can be defined as the ability to access existing information using digital technologies and to produce information effectively using this information.

  3. JML
    JML says:

    I cannot sort my inbox to save my life. I have thousands and thousands of emails. Even at work. I have no idea how people sort and file email. Sometimes I’d try to do it because I felt so dumb not being able to, but then I’d just end up with 2-3 other places where I’d have to look. I’m just thankful for the search function. I can usually find things.

    And since we’re on the topic of email, I used to work for an insane person who would write her email in the subject line. One long-ass subject and no content in the body. Crazy!

  4. GenerationXpert
    GenerationXpert says:

    Since my daughter started college this fall, she’s been using email a lot more. I think that’s a good thing. My feeling is that in the workplace email isn’t going anywhere because it’s an easy way to communicate asynchronous. It’s easy to search through emails, as opposed to texts or voicemails. Plus, I can type faster than I can text or talk. But texted thing may just be because I’m over 40.

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      Yeah, I think email is not going anywhere til work changes a lot. I think people use email to keep their work communication separate from other communication (kids, family, etc) Also, the non-email ways to communicate, like Slack, make for more communication and more low-impact conversations going on with co-workers.

      Certainly, though, Gen Z will figure out how to do email and when the generation reaches critical mass at work, they’ll kill email for something else.


  5. Melissa
    Melissa says:

    I’m 52 & lucky bc my 1st job was Army-admin assistant. It was/is easy for me to understand email, bc I did it w/paperwork for years & typed actual letters/memos/filed.(gasp) my kids really struggled w/filing in binder in h.s. it took repetition (I.e. let me see your backpack) the 22 yo I worked w/was great at Google but actually organizing /paperwork nor so much. 0 organizing anything, they are used to googling why SAVE ANYThing? Lol
    My downside is I write too much in comments (like here) WORSE my texts are “letters” or 1 word. There’s no in between
    Most parents appear to think here (small rural town) that school teaches everything but organization applies to all areas & takes practice!
    I admit I didn’t teach my kids how to organize email. *sigh* didn’t occur to me.

  6. Mark W.
    Mark W. says:

    What is digital literacy? It is literacy on a digital platform. It’s important to know how to navigate to and execute actions on the digital platform but that’s only a portion of the knowledge necessary to complete a task. That leaves the at least equally important portion – literacy. Even though it may be perceived kids have the advantage of growing up in the digital age and using digital tools almost exclusively, I submit older folks like you and me who now spend much time necessarily accomplishing tasks digitally have the advantage by virtue of the fact we also carried out tasks in a mostly analog environment so we have more literacy experience.
    I disagree somewhat with the following paragraph – “Beware: the gap in ability to judge information is not really a function of age. It’s a function of how much time people have spent online learning to tell the difference between reliable and unreliable content. People who didn’t grow up online have a difficult time. But the kids who are not allowed to search aimlessly online will have those same difficulties. That’s what digital literacy is today: being able to identify high-quality content.” I was always able to judge the credibility of information – offline (ex. – library) or online (computer connected to the Internet). The skills are different with respect to finding sources and information but the ability to shift through and tell the difference between reliable and unreliable content is a researching skill (what is BS and the reasons why) regardless of the method (analog or digital).
    As a side note, I enjoyed the YouTube videos. The first video had some very creative solutions by advertisers to make food look good. The second video with the science experiments was entertaining. I like that your new web design is able to play them within the page so the browser doesn’t have to open a new tab and go to the YouTube site.
    I think this post demonstrates each generation has skills that other generations can learn from and the best result is when different generations work together as a team.
    P.S. – I just noticed something else new which is a nice addition to your new site – a checkbox which gives readers the ability to subscribe without commenting. Good work as I know some readers have requested that feature in the past.

  7. My Boys' Teacher
    My Boys' Teacher says:

    People with perfect pitch have autism.”

    That is not what that article said. Not even in the extract if you read it all the way to the end.
    I have a PhD in Music Theory and a PhD minor in the psychology of hearing. Most children quickly discover that relative pitch (the distance between pitches) is more important information than the absolute pitches. (Otherwise when mom sings you Row, Row, Your Boat starting on a different note from day to day you wouldn’t recognize it as the same song.) It is true that people with autism may have executive function difficulties that prevent them from reaching this conclusion. However, it is also true that children who are involved with music at a high level from an early age will have a use for that information and will not discard it like the average person. That is a logical executive decision for those people, not a sign of autism and executive function difficulties.

    While the general public sees AP (perfect pitch) as a sign of giftedness, most upper level musicians do not see it that way.

    What I therefore found interesting about the study was that there are things that are measured as part of the AQ (Autism Quotient) that are not by themselves indicative of Autism. There is obviously overlap in qualities that a person with autism may have and qualities that are found in people that excel. We cannot start to simply correlate high level of mastery of any subject with autism.

    From the study you linked: “It is important to emphasize that even though our AP possessors achieved reliably higher AQ scores than our non-possessors, they did not, with one exception, have scores above 32 which is the cut-off for the DSM-IV-TR criteria for high functioning autism as suggested by Baron-Cohen et al. [28]. The only person in our study who exceeded that score was an AP possessor who obtained a score of 33 but did not evidence any social or communication disability and had never been given a diagnosis of autism or related disorder. Thus, our findings, whilst showing that AP possessors exhibit more traits associated with the broad autism phenotype than non-possessors and non-musicians, do not support the notion of increased social and communication.”

    Also from the study:
    “In conclusion, our findings show that AP ability is not associated with deficits in social and communication abilities in typical populations and this challenges previous work making such links.”

  8. Prithvi Sharma
    Prithvi Sharma says:

    Thanks for the article, I totally agree with internet been a big garbage dump of information, in which we need to be good at sorting trash. I had spend lots of time doing the same its difficult finding reliable authentic content online.

  9. Dd
    Dd says:

    Ok many more Chinese people have perfect pitch. My nephew does and is a social butterfly with no autistic traits. He probably got it from your husbands side. Didn’t you say they have musicians. Pp is rare in America big but not in much of Asia. Most autistic kids I know love music but don’t have perfect pitch though I’d agree it’s a higher proportion

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      Yes, perfect pitch occurs more frequently in Chinese, Japanese and Jewish families. And so does autism. And it is humanly impossible to have perfect pitch and no autistic traits because perfect pitch is in scientific literature as trait of autism. So your nephew with perfect pitch has autism. And autism is genetic so he didn’t get it from nowhere. And I’m so so so so sick of people being in denial of autism in their family. Life would be so much eaiser for peopel if we could see each other for who we are.


  10. Mark W.
    Mark W. says:

    There’s another type of literacy more important every day that’s not discussed here. It’s data literacy defined in this article ( ) titled ‘How One Woman Is Bridging The World’s Data Literacy Gap By Educating The Next Generation’ as – “In a corporate context, data literacy is workers’ ability to read, analyze, utilize and disperse data throughout an organization. Data literacy helps people collect the right kind of data and derive meaningful insights from that data to incite a measurable impact on performance and revenue.”
    Here are a couple of other excerpts taken from the article – “(Lisa) Carraway (Senior Director of Internal Communications at Qlik) says the global data literacy gap affects all aspects of organizations and society as a whole. “Companies are struggling as they seek to hire data literate employees, and schools – from primary to higher education – are trying to keep up with the rapidly changing technology landscape,” she says.” and
    “Last year, Qlik and several other companies launched the Data Literacy Project, an independent community effort focused on improving global data literacy through free educational resources, best practice sharing and community dialogue. Carraway projects that by 2025 the Data Literacy Project will have supported global educational institutions in placing data literacy at the heart of their curriculums. Qlik is also hosting free online data literacy courses to help build a data literate workforce.”
    What’s important here is the amount and quality of data that’s available to use to gain insights and further opportunities is steadily growing and perhaps even more important is the recognition that it’s not just the engineers, technicians, and chief data officers that need to know how to interpret, use, and communicate the data to others. It will be necessary for the good majority of the workforce to be comfortable managing data effectively (i.e. – being data literate).

  11. Karen
    Karen says:

    That is fascinating! My son is 8, autistic and within a year of online piano teaching, has developed perfect pitch (getting to him to play the piano is another story ;-)

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