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”!