I spend quite some time of my life learning about digital technology, how it works and all the great things you can do with it. By now I’m quite handy with computers, I understand how the Internet works, and I own and use multiple devices that allow me to be connected 24/7. This interest for IT differentiates me from many other people my age and as that it gives me certain advantage, for example on the job market.
Lately the term digital natives has popped up a lot and it made me wonder not only who these people are, but also why they have become such a popular topic. Rumors are that once these young generations enter the job market, they will put all the rest of us in the shade. I can see that with the growing importance of technology in almost every market, being savvy in the field can be very convenient. But do they really pose a threat to those, who grew up not knowing what the Internet was?
I looked into this new phenomenon of digital natives and I’d like to share some of my insights with you. And no worries, we don’t need to fear the shadow just yet.
Who are these digital natives?
According to Marc Prensky, author of the article Digital Natives, Digital Immigrants, digital natives are “native speakers of the digital language of computers, video games, and the Internet.” They have grown up surrounded by all sorts of digital technology, not knowing the time when digital music players and instant messaging was not yet existent.
Prensky claims that the uprise of digital technology has changed these young generations in a fundamental and irreversible way. He even suggests that because IT has become an integral part of their lives, it has changed how they think and process information. Prensky suspects that even their brains have changed physically, which leads to whole new thinking patterns.
Digital natives learn early to receive information really fast and through multiple channels. They are used to processing different information parallel and to multi-task.
Digital immigrants on the other hand can learn and adapt, but they will always retain a “‘digital immigrant accent”. There are plenty of examples to illustrate this, such as the “Did you get my email?” phone call, or printing a document for editing.
Who are these digital natives really?
In her article The ‘digital natives’ debate: A critical review of the evidence, Sue Bennett offers a different, more differentiated view on the so called digital natives or net generation. She takes a look at the claims Prensky makes in his article and points out that he can hardly generalize his assumptions for a whole generation. I agree.
Bennett names a couple of studies that have been conducted in the mid and late 90’s that show that even though the net generation has easy access to digital technology, there is no direct link to a high level of media literacy. Most kids don’t produce their own content, instead IT is mostly used for pleasure.
Media literacy is a very important aspect of being technology savvy. Knowing how to turn on the TV and how to browse the Internet at a young age does not imply that children are prepared for the richness of content they encounter. In his book Theory of Media Literacy, James Potter explains what it means to be media literate and why it is that important:
Media are primarily interested in their own marketing agenda. Therefore it is essential that we as consumers know for ourselves what is good for us and what is not. If we are media literate, we can make reasonable constructions of the meaning we get from media messages. For educating children in media literacy this means to help them better understand media messages, to think about their own benefits, and to make better choices. Eventually, by improving individuals, the society at large will benefit.
Basically this means that growing up surrounded by video games and social media does not mean that these generations better understand technology. Digital natives might take media and IT for granted, they might be used to constantly being connected, and they might be better at multitasking. However, they still need to be educated just like we did in order to understand the principles behind the technology.
Why is the term so popular?
As I mentioned in the beginning, people talk a lot about digital natives lately. Here are some reasons why I think they are so popular.
Technology continually evolves and with it new trends come and go. I believe that social media and the urge to be constantly connected is one of these trends. Especially for younger people, who define themselves through their relationships with others, it is difficult to resist this. Youngster playing with their smartphone are most likely engaging in some kind of social interaction with their friends. They are most unlikely to do some high level cognitive tasks that would make them more media literate. By calling these young people digital natives, we come up with a term to help us better understand their behavior.
Media offer a simple way to entertain children. I believe that in our meritocracy a lot of parents, who are too busy with their own lives, refer to their children as digital natives as an excuse for not spending more time with them. If it’s in the nature of a child to spend a couple of hours a day using media, how can that be not healthy? In other words, if we declare something abnormal as normal and if we can then get a whole society to believe us, there will be no one judging us.
Of course, the whole phenomenon of the digital native is also great ammunition for the media. What I know from my parents and grandparents, people have always come up with some debate between different generations. For now it is digital natives vs. digital immigrants. Just like with any other great news story, for a while it’s new and special and people are interested. Then it ebbs away and something new will make the front page.
This leaves us with a couple of things to consider the next time we talk about digital natives. We cannot generalize whole generations. We should not build expectations based on one popular image of these young people. The degree to which someone is actually technology savvy still strongly depends on their personal interests and the level of education they have received in media literacy.
For us as digital immigrants, this means that we will not be forced to renounce the throne of digital technology in the near future. Future generations might be more familiar with what’s out there, but they will just as much need to learn how to make use of it as we do. With this in mind, let’s keep it up and don’t worry if your colleagues start about the invasion of the digital natives again.