The damaging mythology of “Digital Natives”


The publication of Ofcom’s latest Communications Market Report, which provides interesting information about significant differences in usage of communications media, has led to a plethora of media commentaries perpetuating the mythology around the usage of the term “Digital Natives”.  A Guardian report  thus comments that “The advent of broadband in the year 2000 has created a generation of digital natives, the communication watchdog Ofcom says in its annual study of British consumers. Born in the new millennium, these children have never known the dark ages of dial up internet, and the youngest are learning how to operate smartphones or tablets before they are able to talk.”.

Ofcom summarised its report as follows: “Ofcom carries out research to help understand people’s awareness of technology and communications. Our research on people’s digital aptitude found that:

  • We’re at our most tech savvy between 14 – 15 years old – with an average score of 113
  • Over 60% of people aged over 55 score below average
  • Six-year-olds show the same confidence with technology as 45 year olds”

In this short post, I do three things: first, highlight the damaging effects that over-simplistic usage of terms such as “Digital Natives” can cause;  second, explore why such terms persist, and hence the notion of mythology; and third, point to  problems with the data upon which the Ofcom report’s conclusions are drawn.

Against the notion of “Digital Natives”
I had thought that the mythology surrounding “Digital Natives” had long been debunked, especially by the really excellent arguments propounded by my good friend Mark Weber, in his presentation on “Fear and Awe of the Digital Native“.  For anyone who has not read it, I strongly urge you to do so!  Rather than repeat all of Mark’s arguments, let me merely highlight four of the reasons why he suggests that it is a dangerous concept:

  • “Generational division simplifies picture
  • Assumes that ‘just because’ someone is young they have the necessary skill set to deal with modern economy
  • Presumes a level playing field for the young, ignores economic and social problems & differences
  • Places unwanted pressure on the young”

These are critical issues that must not be ignored, but I would like briefly here to develop four particular points that are in part alluded to by Mark:

  • Not everyone who is young is digitally literate, nor is everyone who is old digitally incompetent! Simply to categorise people in this way can be hugely damaging, not least to their self esteem.  If we wish to encourage older people to use technology, because of its assumed benefits to them, it is decidedly unhelpful to castigate them as being resistant to technology, or unable to learn about it.  Many older people are hugely competent at using digital technologies, and indeed teach younger people how to use them! Using Ofcom’s sample question test, for example, I scored more than 55% above the average score for people my age!!!
  • These differences are in large part structurally determined, rather than merely a factor of age.  Much more research needs to be done on reasons why people use digital technologies in particular ways, but there are very many structural reasons why people in particular age groups might respond to such surveys in particular ways (see below for problems with the actual questions asked in the Ofcom survey).  There are clear reasons why older people might not be as familiar with digital technologies as younger ones, not least because they may consider that they have better things to do with their time!  Moreover, not having access to the technologies, not being able to afford them, or their design being difficult to use can all affect such usage.  Elderly people with visual impairments or motility challenges find small digital devices difficult to use.  Most, although definitely not all, common digital technologies are not designed for use by people with disabilities, and similarly as people become older they too are often actually specifically marginalised by the technologies.
  • It implies that digital technologies are on the whole “good” and “beneficial”; we should all want to be natives! This again is part of the mythology surrounding “Digital Natives”.  However, as needs to be repeated over and over again, digital technologies have both positive and negative effects.  The word “native” is generally seen as being positive, and therefore it focuses attention mainly on the positive aspects of  the use of such technologies.  Sadly, the term “Digital Immigrants”, which is often used to refer to those older people learning how to use the technologies, has become associated with the more widely pejorative usage of the word “Immigrant”.  This is extremely unfortunate, because immigrants are actually often the people who bring in new ideas, and lead to changes for the better in a society! The notion that all digital technologies are definitely good must be debunked.  One need only think of the challenges of cybercrime, child online pornography, or the increased work load cause by e-mails to realise that being a “Digital Native” can actually be hugely damaging and dehumanising!
  • The notion of “Digital Natives” is a simple concept, that is easily remembered, but it is therefore highly dangerous because it implies some kind of causative power. There is nothing necessarily about young people that makes them any more adept at using digital technologies than older people.  The Ofcom report emphasises that, based on their survey, “Six-year-olds show the same confidence with technology as 45 year olds”, but this merely expresses confidence rather than ability.  If six-year-olds regularly play with digital technologies more than do older people, then it is hardly surprising that they have more confidence in their usage.  This does not mean that they are necessarily better at using the technology, or that older people cannot learn how to use it.  Persistence in the use of the term will only encourage older people to think that they are less able to use the technologies than they actually are, and might therefore further limit their potential benefit gains from digital technologies.  This is not to deny the considerable evidence that humans have greater difficulty remembering things, or learning new things as they get older, but it is to decry the arguments that suggest that there is something particularly about digital technologies that makes them harder than other new things for older people to learn.

Why do people still persist in using the term “Digital Native”?
The idea of students as “Digital Natives” and teachers as “Digital Immigrants” as first postulated by Mark Prensky in 2001 is indeed catchy, and it is not surprising that it became popular.  Like many popular concepts, it has an element of truth in it, and it appeals to those who like binary divides and simplicity.  Prensky’s paper concluded, “So if Digital Immigrant educators really want to reach Digital Natives – i.e. all their students – they will have to change. It’s high time for them to stop their grousing, and as the Nike motto of the Digital Native generation says, “Just do it!” They will succeed in the long run – and their successes will come that much sooner if their administrators support them”.  As founder and CEO of a game-based learning company, Prensky was  eager to encourage as many teachers as possible to adopt digital technologies in their learning, and this has been at the heart of the ‘interests’ that have subsequently underlain much use of the terminology.

Those who advocate the use of the term “Digital Natives” do so very specifically, so as to encourage even greater adoption of digital technologies, not only in the field of learning, but also more widely.  “Immigrants” are encouraged to adopt ever more technology so that they can become as proficient and ‘naturalised’ as are the “Digital Natives”.  Hence, a fundamental driver for use of this terminology is the profit motive of global ICT corporations, eager to ensure that as many people as possible are locked in to the new digital world that they are creating.

In the field of e-learning, a fear that teachers often have, especially in some of the poorer countries of the world, is that their role will be usurped by the machine, and that as “Digital Immigrants” they will be left behind by their students, the “Digital Natives”.  The traditional role of the teacher, as someone with knowledge to impart, rather than as someone helping others to learn, is thus seen as being fundamentally undermined by the use of digital technologies such as computers, the Internet and mobile ‘phones.  In such contexts, the use of an overly simple divide between Natives and Immigrants can be hugely damaging.  Instead, a more sophisticated approach to incorporating digital technologies in learning is required, recognising that it is a transformation for both teachers and students, and that only by working together can they develop a shared appreciation of the benefits that such technologies can bring.

Problems with research based on self-reporting
Interestingly, the Ofcom report itself does not actually use the words “Digital Natives”, but it does provide interesting information about how different age groups self-report on technology usage. Herein, though, lies a fundamental problem with the report, which is that the age-related conclusions are largely based on simple self-reporting questions that do not actually provide a reliable basis for the conclusions drawn.  As the sample questions indicate, the responses to one section require the person completing the questionnaire to give one of the following five answers to the question “Thinking about the following gadgets and services – which statement best describes your knowledge and understanding?”:

  • I use them
  • I know a lot about them, but I haven’t used them
  • I know a bit about them, but I haven’t used them
  • I’ve heard of them but don’t know much about them
  • I’ve never heard of them.

This relies on those responding to differentiate between “not much”, “a bit”, and “a lot”; one person’s “not much” could be another’s “a lot”.  Moreover, there is an inbuilt bias in such questions, because the same amount of knowledge abut technology is actually a much smaller percentage of an older person’s overall knowledge than it would be of a child’s knowledge.  This would tend to lead to younger people thinking that their digital knowledge about something was actually “a lot”, whereas an older person might see this as actually being “not much”!  The gadgets chosen are also somewhat problematic, including smart glasses such as Google Glass, smart watches, and 3D printers, not least because very few people actually use them as yet, and so the results will be biased to particular age groups that use them.

Another set of questions requires respondents to answer whether they “agree strongly”, “agree”, “disagree” or “disagree strongly” with a set of statements that include:

  • I like working out how to use different gadgets
  • My friend and family ask what I think about new gadgets
  • I know how to use lots of gadgets
  • I wouldn’t know what to do without technology

These questions are likely to be more comparable and reliable than the first batch discussed above, but similar challenges of interpretation can be found with most of them.  How, for example, does one quantify “lots of gadgets”? Moreover, agreeing strongly with the last of these would presumably lead to a high score, whereas only some reflection is required to suggest that it is actually deeply worrying for anyone to answer anything other than “strongly disagree”!

A further set of questions invites respondents to describe usage in terms of “regularly”, “sometimes”, “hardly ever” and “never” with respect to technologies such as online TV and text messaging:

  • I watch TV shows online (e.g. BBC iPlayer, 4OD)
  • I prefer to contact friends by text message than by phone call (e.g. by SMS, BBM, iMessage)

Again, these assume that all groups of respondents will differentiate between categories in the same way.  “Regularly”, for example, could be interpreted as “regularly, once a week”, whereas it would seem to be meant to mean very frequently!  Likewise, the difference between “sometimes” and “hardly ever” is not easy to define.

The Ofcom report has certainly provided interesting data about the use of communication technologies in Britain today, and it must be stressed once again it did not specifically use the words “Digital Natives”.  However, it must be emphasised that much of the data upon which it is based is somewhat problematic, and focused very much on perceptions rather than actually how people use technologies.  These are, though, clearly related, and there is no question that people from different backgrounds, cultures, ethnicity, gender and age all use devices in different ways.  The way on which journalists have picked up on the term “Digital Native” is, though, disappointing, and continues to promote what I see as a damaging mythology.  It is great to know I am not alone, and that today “The Herald” in Scotland also runs an article called “Myth of the digital native”!

 

12 Comments

Filed under Development, Education, ICT4D, Social Networking

12 responses to “The damaging mythology of “Digital Natives”

  1. Tim,
    thanks for your thoughtful and rather exhaustive analysis of this matter. At 73, I feel that I belong to the natives, having written my first Algol program in 1966. But for the young “natives”, I think that many of them share a very old condition, affecting an increasing number of young pollsters: They have yet to learn the lessons of the failed question, such as “Have you stopped beating your wife?” (yes, no, don’t have wife) or the log book entry of the disgruntled first mate: “Captain sober tonight”.

  2. On page 45 of the 429 (!) page document, I find table 1:25. The researchers proudly present the finding that surveyed persons in the 16-24 year bracket are awake 884 minutes per day, and spend 847 minutes on digital media. That leaves 37 minutes per day for things like waking up, brushing teeth, talking to other people, riding bikes, cooking, training dogs or other things that require your full attention.
    Interesting find, indeed. I would like to see this item broken down on “natives” and “immigrants”.
    This was also the point where I decided to not go beyond page 45 of the report.

  3. unwin

    Thanks Olof – not quite as old as you, but at least I was programming in Fortran in the 1970s!

    Perhaps the young people are using digital media while they are not awake!!

  4. The Openness World

    Tim, many thanks for sharing this reflection.🙂
    The most interesting thing is that we, “immigrants” (I was programming basic games in a XZ Spectrum, in the the end of the 80’s, not as older as you, guys :)) are the ones coming up with this distinction, gap, creating this buzzwords! …
    The other day, I was talking to a friend of mine ( another “immigrant” ) and she was telling me that she hated touching her computer, except for work, and was not techie! The interesting thing, it was that while we were talking, she was the one checking her email, facebook on her smartphone ..etc🙂 very interesting…

    • unwin

      Lovely examples! It’s interesting that I have been trying to wean some of my (older) managers off e-mails, and encourage them actually to engage colleagues in face to face physical discussions – but have met stiff opposition. Am increasingly concerned that what we (whoever we are) are increasingly mediating what makes us human through machines – and we forget the feeling of dew on bare feet in the morning as we walk across the grass!

      • The Openness World

        well, I still fundamentally believe in us, humans, and I see a lot of people, kids enjoying the grass, the morning dew…;)
        most of the times, people (including myself) are just too afraid that if they don’t follow the latest technology, social media tool, etc. they may be losing qualities, they are not on top of everything…🙂 sometimes, I really need to take a deep breath and stop!🙂

        It takes courage to stop, impose limits…Tim, thanks!🙂

  5. Richard Heeks

    There’s an excellent review of the concept of digital natives (definitions, evidence, critique) plus interesting global data as Chapter Four of last year’s Measuring the Information Society report. Badged as ITU but, I think, actually written by Mike Best: http://mikeb.inta.gatech.edu/uploads/papers/measure.digital.natives.pdf

  6. I’ve had a keen interest in this debate for many years and wrote a paper on this issue for my Masters. We are in dangerous territory if we assume that just because our students are growing up in a digital age that they are comfortable in that environment, They may have many base skills but often lack the ability to link what they know digitally to their own learning. They are often not able to make this important connection and need to be taught these skills, along with the all-important skills of digital citizenship.
    If anyone would like to read the paper I wrote I am happy to provide a link.

  7. Pingback: My notes on “Revisiting the Digital Native Hypothesis” by Michael Trucano | Dadamac Connect

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