Digital Native

digital native

A digital native is a person who was born during or after the general introduction of digital technology, and through interacting with digital technology from an early age, has a greater understanding of its concepts.

Alternatively, this term can describe people born in the latter 1960s or later, as the Digital Age began at that time; but in most cases the term focuses on people who grew up with the technology that became prevalent in the latter part of the 20th century, and continues to evolve today.

A digital immigrant is an individual who was born before the existence of digital technology and adopted it to some extent later in life. Not all digital immigrants are technologically inept, as they fall into a number of categories; Avoiders, Reluctant Adopters and Eager Adopters. Avoiders may only have a minimal amount of technology involved in their lives and households (e.g., a landline phone and a television set). Reluctant Adopters often see ways that technology might be needed in their lives, but they try to avoid it when possible (e.g., letters instead of emails, rotary telephones). Eager Adopters have enthusiasm or a talent for technology that makes them very similar to Digital Natives. Similarly, not all digital natives are comfortable with technology.

Education writer Marc Prensky coined the terms in his work ‘Digital Natives, Digital Immigrants’ published in 2001. The terms draw an analogy to nationality, for whom the local religion, language, and folkways are natural and indigenous, compared with immigrants to a country who often are expected to adapt and begin to adopt the region’s customs. Prensky refers to accents employed by digital immigrants, such as printing documents rather than commenting on screen or printing out emails to save as a hard copy. Digital immigrants are said to have a ‘thick accent’ when operating in the digital world in distinctly pre-digital ways, for instance, calling people into a room to see a webpage instead of sending them the URL. A digital native might refer to her new ‘camera’; but a digital immigrant might refer to his new ‘digital camera.’

The everyday regime of worklife is becoming more technologically advanced with improved computers in offices, more complicated machinery in industry etc. With technology moving so fast it is hard for digital immigrants to keep up. This creates conflicts among older supervisors and managers with the increasingly younger workforce. Similarly, parents clash with their children at home over gaming, texting, YouTube, Facebook and other Internet technology issues. What many digital immigrants miss is that digital natives grew up with technology, and it is how they connect with their friends, perform research, and feel at home. Young people are not necessarily ‘addicts’ or ‘bad’ simply for using the tools of the world they grow up in.

Education, as Marc Prensky states, is the single largest problem facing the digital world as our Digital Immigrant instructors, who speak an outdated language (that of the pre-digital age), are struggling to teach a population that speaks an entirely new language. Immigrants suffer complications in teaching natives how to understand an environment which is ‘native’ to them and foreign to Immigrants. Prensky’s own response to this problem are computer games he designs to teach digital natives their lessons in a format they understand implicitly. This ideology has already been introduced to a number of serious practicalities. For example, piloting an Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) in the army consists of someone sitting in front of a computer screen issuing commands to the UAV via a hand-held controller which resembles (in detail) the model of controllers that are used to play games on an Xbox 360 game console.

Some critics have charged the term digital immigrant overlooks the fact that many people born before the digital age were the inventors, designers, developers and first users of digital technology and in this sense could be regarded as the original ‘natives.’ To confuse the prolific (and arguably superficial) use of digital technology by current adolescents as deep knowledge and understanding is potentially misleading and unhelpful to the discourse. The term also discounts the broader and more holistic knowledge, experience and understandings that older generations may have about digital technologies and their potential place in society.

Crucially, there is debate over whether there is any adequate evidence for claims made about digital natives and their implications for education. Critical review of the research evidence reveals some accounts of digital natives having an academic form of a moral panic. Using such a terminology is rather a sign of unfamiliarity and exoticism in relation to digital culture. Of course, nobody is ‘born digital’; as with any cultural technology, such as reading and writing, it is matter of access to education and experience.

Presnky considers virtually all youths as digital natives in the modern age. However, this is not the case. It is primarily based on cultural differences and not by age. Some adults are more tech savvy than children and often socioeconomic standing is often a better predictor of exposure to digital technology than age. The current discourse concentrates largely on developed technology geographies and has a particular bias towards white, liberal, middle-class youth who have the privilege of access to technology.

‘It is necessary to promote research that grasps that not all Digital Natives are equal. Each context will have certain norms by which digital nativity is understood and experienced. Dismantling the universal Digital Native and considering contextualized Digital Native identities might also help us move away from speaking of the Digital Native as a necessarily elite power-user of technology and understand the identity as a point of departure from earlier technology-mediated identities within those contexts.’ One way of understanding digital natives is to look at how they use digital technologies to engage with their immediate environments and initiate processes of social and personal change.


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