The next time you’re about to coax, cajole, bribe or otherwise attempt to disconnect your child from the computer or smartphone, take a few deep breaths and consider this fact: students who are unfamiliar with online activities, like searching for information and chatting, are less proficient in digital reading.


So what? you may ask. Well, with everything from school courses to job applications to tax forms to train tickets now on line, knowing how to navigate through and read digital texts is essential for anyone who wants to participate fully in the information-based society. Increasingly, it’s a basic skill required for landing a job.


In 2009, the OECD’s Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) conducted a groundbreaking survey of digital literacy among 15-year-old students. The results are sometimes surprising.


For example, access to computers both at home and at school has expanded substantially over the past decade: the proportion of students in OECD countries who reported having access to the Internet at home doubled from 45% to 89% between 2000 and 2009. Yet the PISA survey found that many young people who were born in the digital age, the so-called “digital natives”, have trouble navigating through and reading digital texts. In some countries, more than a quarter of students scored below the baseline level of proficiency in the PISA digital reading assessment. While many of these students can locate simple pieces of information in a short block of hypertext and can scroll across web pages (as long as they are given explicit directions), their lack of mastery of this form of reading may prevent them from fully exploiting the educational, employment and social opportunities available through the Internet.


The PISA results show a strong correlation between print and digital reading proficiency. While that may not be too surprising, what also emerged from the assessment is the finding that the gender gap in reading performance, which is notably wide in print reading, is narrower in digital reading. Girls outperform boys in digital reading by an average of 24 score points on the PISA digital reading scale, compared to an average of 38 score points—or one full year of formal education—on the print reading scale. What accounts for the difference in the gender gap? Analysis of the results suggests that boys may be more interested in the kinds of texts available on the Internet than in those that are found in print; or that boys may feel more comfortable using digital technologies than girls. Since, on average, boys have shown poorer performance in print reading than girls in all the PISA surveys conducted since 2000, this finding about digital reading might be useful in developing strategies to get boys interested in reading. The more interested and enthusiastic boys are, they more they’ll read and, ultimately, the better readers they’ll become.


PISA also finds that spending unlimited hours in front of the computer doesn’t automatically make a student a better digital reader: students who use home computers for schoolwork or leisure activities moderately frequently attain higher scores in digital reading than both rare and intensive users.


What these PISA results show should make both students and their parents very happy: browsing the Internet and chatting on line is associated with a greater ability to read and navigate through digital texts—but only when students engage in these activities in moderation. What’s the right balance of online and off-line activities? We’ll leave that for you and your child to work out…