Digital Natives

Digital Natives

Sue Bennett (University of Wollongong, Australia)
Copyright: © 2012 |Pages: 8
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-4666-0315-8.ch018
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Abstract

The term “digital native” was popularized by Prensky (2001) as a means of distinguishing young people who are highly technologically literate and engaged. His central claim was that because of immersion in digital technologies from birth, younger people think and learn differently than older generations. Tapscott (1998) had proposed a similar idea, calling it “The Net Generation,” and there have been numerous labels applied to the same supposed phenomena since. Recent research has revealed that the term is misapplied when used to generalize about an entire generation, and instead indicates that only a small sub-set of the population fits this characterization. This research shows significant diversity in the technology skills, knowledge, and interests of young people, and suggests that there are important “digital divides,” which are ignored by the digital native concept. This chapter synthesizes key findings from Europe, North America, and Australia and predicts future directions for research in this area.
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Overview

The idea of the digital native appears to have first emerged in an essay entitled Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace by Barlow (1995) in which he admonished parents with the charge: “You are terrified of your own children, since they are natives in a world where you will always be immigrants” (p.12). Papert (1996), in The Connected Family, similarly evokes a rift between parents and children, and teachers and students, portraying older generations as being both afraid of computers and technically incompetent. Clearly, the idea of a ‘digital generation gap’ was gaining currency at this time.

Regardless of its exact provenance, it has been Prensky who popularized the term ‘digital native’ in his widely cited 2001 article, Digital natives, Digital immigrants. Around the same time, Tapscott (1998) had put forward the similar notion of ‘The Net Generation’, while social commentators coined the term ‘Millenials’ as a generational label (Howe & Strauss, 2000). Since then a proliferation of less widely used epithets has appeared, all attempting to capture the essence of the same phenomenon (e.g. Generation C, Google Generation, Nintendo Generation etc).

In short, the idea of the digital native captured the imaginations of teachers, parents, journalists, commentators and academics. Closer examination of Prensky’s arguments, particularly in his influential 2001 paper, reveals little in way of evidence to substantiate his claims, however. He relies on anecdotes, conjecture and speculation. Nonetheless his ideas have often been uncritically repeated and cited as if fact. Even when similar arguments have cited evidence, authors provide few details of the data collection methods and analysis processes used, thwarting critical scrutiny of these studies (e.g. Tapscott, 1998; Palfrey & Gasser, 2008). This presents a significant challenge in assessing the quality of this research, and therefore of the claims made.

Key Terms in this Chapter

Digital Immigrant: A digital immigrant is a person born before the widespread adoption of computers and has had to adopt digital technology later in life. Digital immigrants are considered to be less technically able than digital natives and it is argued that they can never develop the same level of technology skills and knowledge as digital natives.

Digital Native: In its original sense, a digital native is a person who has grown up after the widespread introduction of the personal computer and therefore been immersed in digital technology. It is claimed that by virtue of this exposure digital natives think, behave and learn differently to older generations. More recently the term has been redefined by some to refer to a person of any age who is highly adept with technology.

Digital inclusion: Digital inclusion refers to mindsets, strategies and initiatives that seek to ensure that all people in society have equitable access to technology regardless of their personal circumstances. It is underpinned by the belief that access to technology and the ability to use it effectively are important to citizenship and social cohesion.

Digital Divide: Digital divides are gaps between individuals or groups due to differences in their access to digital technologies. Access refers to more than physical access, including also the ability to use technologies effectively. Divisions may occur due to factors such as age, gender, race/ethnicity, socio-economic status and/or geographic location.

Digital Generation Gap: The digital generation gap refers to the proposed gap between children and adults (especially parents and teachers) due to young people’s natural ability to adapt to new technologies more successfully than older generations.

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