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New transfer series NEPS Forschung kompakt: First issue on the development of ICT competencies ind adolescence

For young people, social media such as Instagram or WhatApp are the communication tools of choice. A new evaluation using data from the National Educational Panel Study (NEPS) on information and communication technology (ICT) competencies of 15- to 18-year-olds has now provided surprising findings: social activities such as chatting or sharing pictures and videos do not have a positive effect on competencies in using digital communication and information technologies. On the contrary, too intensive use of socially interactive services can even lead to lower digital skills overall among young people. In contrast, there is good news with regard to the differences between girsl and boys.

While doing homework or learning vocabulary, quickly answering a chat message on the side, sharing a video or uploading a selfie – young people often use social media for entertainment, distraction and diversion. And it is precisely this pattern of behavior that can have a negative impact on their ability to use digital communication media in a targeted and expert manner – for example, for research and when evaluating search results. The authors of the recent report, Dr. Timo Gnambs of the Leibniz Institute for Educational Trajectories and Dr. Martin Senkbeil of the IPN Kiel, distinguish between the contrast between social-interactive and instrumental motives for use. While the use of digital media for entertainment and social exchange is not very demanding, the targeted search for information in an online search, for example, pays directly into the young adults' ability to handle digital information technologies with confidence. Alongside writing, reading and mathematics, these so called ICT competencies are considered basic key skills.

Incidental use is detrimental
But it's not just the less demanding activities that are bad for improving ICT skills. Dr. Martin Senkbeil sees the habit of incidental use as problematic: "Social media are often used by young people in parallel with school tasks. However, this multitasking impairs comprehension and learning processes, and as a result we see lower ICT competencies overall," says the researcher from the Leibniz Institute for Science and Mathematics Education (IPN).  Together with co-author Gnambs, Senkbeil therefore calls for the teaching of sophisticated information-related skills to be integrated into subject-related lessons as standard. Students should learn, for example, how to search for specific information with an online search, how to evaluate, process and present it, and thus train their skills in complex thinking and problem solving. 

Girls and boys equally competent
In their study of the representative sample of 15- to 18-year-old young people in Germany (more than 14,000 people participating in the National Educational Panel Study), Gnambs and Senkbeil also took a look at the differences between girls and boys. Their findings: Contrary to widespread belief, the genders hardly distinguish in their ICT skills. However, male adolescents systematically rate their own skills higher. The researchers therefore suspect that women tend to avoid technology-based occupational fields and training because they are less confident about their competencies. Since the differences in self-assessment are already strongly entrenched in adolescence, Dr. Timo Gnambs advises early support measures already in childhood: "Early support can contribute to more equal opportunities in later years of life and reduce the development of actual differences in ICT skills."

All results of the evaluation can be found in the full report "How do ICT competencies develop in adolescence?" in the new NEPS Forschung kompakt [NEPS Research Compact] series. It is permanently available at

The report is based on the following publications:

  • Gnambs, T. (2021). The development of gender differences in information and communication technology (ICT) literacy in middle adolescence. Computers in Human Behavior, 114:106533. 
  • Senkbeil, M. (2022). ICT-related variables as predictors of ICT literacy beyond intelligence and prior achievement. Education and Information Technologies, 27, 3595-3622. 


About the NEPS and the Transfer Report Series
The National Educational Panel Study (NEPS) consists of seven large sub-studies, the so-called starting cohorts. These comprise a total of more than 70,000 tested and interviewed individuals from birth through the education and employment phase and into the post-education phase, as well as 50,000 additional respondents from their environment, such as parents and educational professionals. The samples of the starting cohorts were drawn to be represetative for the whole of Germany. The data collected in this way is anonymized and made available to education researchers worldwide. Experts from 13 renowned research institutes work together in the Germany-wide NEPS network. LIfBi in Bamberg is the lead institution. The transfer series NEPS Forschung kompakt - Aktuelle Auswertungen aus dem Nationalen Bildungspanel is published several times a year with central research results from the NEPS. The series is published by the NEPS Network Committee, which is responsible for it.

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