Health With a Capital H

Private and Public Sectors Look to Address Digital Literacy

February 9, 2011

Contributed by Alexandra Bornkessel


On January 18, 2011, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) approved the $30 billion joint venture between Comcast and NBC Universal. Only one of the five FCC commissioners dissented-allowing the deal to pass and giving Comcast unprecedented control over both content and syndication.

Arguments over media consolidation aside, the deal comes with some fine print that caught our attention: Comcast claims to focus energy on digital literacy and providing broadband access in low-income communities. According to Digital Journal, Comcast is voluntarily committing "to offer high-speed Internet service at less than $10 per month-along with digital literacy training opportunities and deep discounts on computer equipment-to more than 2.5 million low-income households."

In addition to these efforts, Comcast says it will undertake a $15 million-per-year public service campaign on digital literacy and childhood nutrition-as well as provide free video and high-speed Internet service to 600 anchor institutions that don't presently have it-including schools and libraries in low-income areas.

But Comcast isn't the only one looking to address digital literacy. In March 2010, FCC released Connecting America: The National Broadband Plan. One of the recommendations within this plan is to develop a national digital literacy program. Later in 2010, the Interagency Digital Literacy Working Group also was formed with the directive to promote broadband as a platform to improve the lives of Americans. The goal of the working group is to initiate the advancement of digital literacy across those in all stages of life by creating a digital literacy Web portal containing resources and places to share best practices in an effort to build the digital literacy skills of Americans.

Defining Digital Literacy for 2020

So what exactly is digital literacy? An evolving concept, digital literacy hasn't yet been fully defined, but we understand it to be about more than just knowing how to use a computer or phone. It's also about understanding the benefits that technologies such as broadband offer and how they can be used to access, create, communicate, and evaluate information.

At the Digital Inclusion Summit last year, FCC Commissioner Mignon L. Clyburn described digital literacy as "the basic understanding of how to locate trustworthy content, how to protect personal information, and how to safely interact online."

Ms. Clyburn also highlighted one of the key recommendations within the National Broadband Plan-creating a National Digital Literacy Corps-that would function in the same way as programs such as AmeriCorps and Senior Corps to "mobilize hundreds of digital ambassadors in local communities across the country."

Digital Literacy and Health

health keyboard

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) recently launched Healthy People 2020, the nation's framework for public Health prevention priorities and actions. Representative of the digital influence in all spheres of life, Health Communication and Health Information Technology is one topic area included in the framework, outlining 13 specific objectives-many of which address the use of technology for improving Health and Health care.

Lately, a major objective of many initiatives, including Healthy People 2020, is to improve Health literacy. Health literacy has been an emerging issue for the past few years and has become somewhat of a hot topic recently, given the release of the National Action Plan to Improve Health Literacy. As being Health-literate becomes more important, we must recognize how people become Health-literate in the first place and where Health information is increasingly available-online.

It's obvious: To improve Health and achieve Health literacy nationwide, we will need to address digital literacy. Look at the Pew Research's latest report, Health Topics. Author Susannah Fox warns of not only a digital divide, but also a Health information divide. The most likely groups to look online for Health information include:

  • Adults who have provided unpaid care to a parent, child, friend, or other loved one in the past 12 months
  • Women
  • Whites
  • Adults between the ages of 18 and 49
  • Adults with at least some college education
  • Adults living in higher income households.

By contrast, fewer than half of adults in the following groups in the United States look online for Health information:

  • African Americans
  • Latinos
  • Adults living with a disability
  • Adults age 65 and older
  • Adults with a high school education or less
  • Adults living in low-income households (annual income $30,000 or less)

Look at this audience breakdown again. If you're like us, there's something wrong with this picture. We're hopeful that addressing digital literacy can help us bridge the gap of both the digital divide and the Health information divide. What steps can we take as a nation to make this happen? Start the conversation here by sharing some successful case studies you know that have addressed both digital literacy and improved Health.