3.4 Digital Media and Literacy

How is literacy defined and what role can librarians play in promoting literacy development? In this section, we present research and theories addressing the impact of digital media technologies on literacy development, then consider the ways youth librarians are using digital media and technology to support teens’ and young adults’ literacy development.

Treating young people as digital natives may be doing them a disservice.1 Instead of assuming youth are all technologically savvy in all ways, try to understand teens’ information behavior needs and practices within a developmental context. While technology is a large part of many teens’ everyday lives, their use, skills, and abilities differ.

What is Literacy?

Literacy is complex concept. Researchers and educators define literacy in various ways. In the digital age, the term includes a wide range of skills beyond reading and writing, including using devices like e-readers and tablets, interpreting information found online, or creating and sharing on digital platforms like YouTube. The notion of literacy has evolved from focusing on reading and writing skills to embracing a holistic set of skills needed by young people to learn, interact, work, and participate in everyday life.2

What New Literacies Have Formed in the Digital Age?

Catherine Snow, an expert on literacy and language development, has found that there are varied ways of approaching literacy, including a componential vs. holistic view.2 For young children, part of literacy development includes building component reading skills such as phonological awareness and letter knowledge. For teens and young adults, many educators focus on a holistic view, or “whole person” approach, to literacy development. As teens and young adults increasingly master component reading skills, a holistic view would focus on the forming connections and meaning through reading and writing.

For instance, young people are encouraged to bring their own lived experiences to stories, literature, reading, and writing. Through a holistic lens, a young person who informally contributes to gaming websites, writes on discussion boards, or keeps a journal is actively developing emerging literacy skills. Further, a holistic view might examine the social and environmental factors that contribute to literacy development. For example, inequitable distribution of resources (e.g. lack of funding in schools, uninvolved parents) would be a source of risk. Youth librarians can play a central role in encouraging literacy development by participating in activities like sharing titles of a teens’ favorite genres of books, obtaining information about the young person’s interests, or understanding their values concerning books, literature, and learning.

New Media Literacies

From writing fan fiction to following Tumblr blogs to creating their own vlogs, the impact of digital media technologies on literacy development is an important area of research. Scholars have continually promoted the critical new media literacies needed for successful participation in 21st century.

Henry Jenkins, a prominent media scholar, spearheaded a 2006 white paper, Confronting the Challenges of Participatory Culture: Media Education for the 21st Century, to build the foundation for a new media literacy movement. Within this seminal work, Jenkins and his coauthors outline a set of cultural competencies and social skills that young people need to acquire if they are going to participate meaningfully in a future digital society. Jenkins calls this future a “participatory culture” that emphasizes collaboration and networking. Among the key social skills and cultural competencies needed to fully participate are:3

  • Play — the capacity to experiment with one’s surroundings as a form of problem-solving
  • Performance — the ability to adopt alternative identities for the purpose of improvisation and discovery
  • Simulation — the ability to interpret and construct dynamic models of real-world processes
  • Appropriation — the ability to meaningfully sample and remix media content
  • Multitasking — the ability to scan one’s environment and shift focus as needed to salient details
  • Distributed cognition — the ability to interact meaningfully with tools that expand mental capacities
  • Collective intelligence — the ability to pool knowledge and compare notes with others toward a common goal
  • Judgment — the ability to evaluate the reliability and credibility of different information sources
  • Transmedia navigation — the ability to follow the flow of stories and information across multiple modalities
  • Networking — the ability to search for, synthesize, and disseminate information
  • Negotiation — the ability to travel across diverse communities, discerning and respecting multiple perspectives, and grasping and following alternative norms.


Building on Jenkins’ research, Rebecca Black, a researcher who studies literacy and popular culture, examined the literacy practices that English language learning and immigrant youth engaged in through their fan fiction related activities. Her research of a popular online fanfiction community demonstrates how community members can help youth improve their English literacy. During the process of writing and critiquing other fan’s stories, youth engage with a diverse group of writers who share feedback as well as a deep interest and knowledge of a topic. The immediate response and interaction from the community provides young writers with motivation to practice revising their texts and take on the identity of a fledgling writer. Black’s research in her book, Adolescents and Online Fan Fiction, reveals the supportive, social, and interactive writing experiences that can be afforded through certain online communities. She calls for educators to understand how aspects of online fan communities may contribute to young adults’ eagerness to read, write, and learn.

Mozilla’s Web Literacies

The affordances of a digital society may provide young people with unprecedented personal, civic, and economic opportunities. However, as researchers like Jenkins caution, young people will need to develop the necessary skills to meaningfully participate. To that end, the Mozilla Foundation, which focuses on resources to make the Internet “a global, public resource,” has initiated a Web Literacy Map to aid educators in teaching young people to “read, write, and participate” on the web.

The Web Literacy Map provides an interactive framework that outlines and defines the key web literacy competencies and 21st-century skills needed to realize the web’s potential. In addition, the map offers hands-on activities for teaching and learning these skills. For example, a web literacy skill like “Design” is linked to the 21st century skill “Creativity.” Youth librarians can discover related curriculum and design-based activities such as using CSS and web fonts to design and revise webpages. As you explore the Map, think about how you may use elements of the curriculum to develop your own web literacy skills and apply these activities and projects to your own youth programming.


Explore Mozilla's web literacy map. What are the relevant 21st century skills that align with these competencies? How might the related activities be incorporated in a youth librarian context?


Compare Jenkins’ new media literacies with Mozilla’s map of web literacies. In what ways do they align or complement one another? Where does print literacy belong?


  • In what ways can exploration of such such online communities like fan fiction sites provide insight into literacy-related activities for youth-centered programming and services?
  • How can youth librarians encourage literacy skills or processes (skills based or knowledge based) in youth-centered library programming and services?

1: Abbas,, J. & Agosto, D.E. (2013). Everyday life information behavior of young people. In J. Beheshti & A. Large (Eds), The information behavior of a new generation: Children and teens in the 21st century, pp.117-142. Lanham, MD: The Scarecrow Press.

2: Snow, C. E. (2006). What counts as literacy in early childhood. Handbook of early child development, 274-294.

3: Jenkins, H., Clinton, K., Purushotma, R., Robison, A.J., & Weigel, M. (2009). Confronting the challenges of participatory culture: Media education for the twenty-first century. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.