The Rise of the Digital Natives

Who are the digital children of 2017? e-Learning specialist Marc Prensky coined the term Digital Natives and used it in two major articles he published in 2001 (Part I , Part II, PDF.) Digital Natives, he says, “are used to receiving information really fast. They like to parallel process and multi-task. They prefer their graphics before their text rather than the opposite. They prefer random access (like hypertext). They function best when networked. They thrive on instant gratification and frequent rewards. They prefer games to “serious” work.” “

 On the opposite side, Prensky identifies what he terms Digital Immigrants. These, he says, are “older folk [who] were “socialized” differently from their kids, and are now in the process of learning a new language. And a language learned later in life, scientists tell us, goes into a different part of the brain.””

As Digital Immigrants learn – like all immigrants, some better than others – to adapt to their environment, they always retain, to some degree, their “accent,” that is, their foot in the past.” According to Prensky, the “digital immigrant accent” can be observed as Digital Immigrants turn to the Internet for information as a secondary choice, or read the manual for an application rather than expect “that the program itself will teach us to use it.” 

Urs Gasser, Executive Director at the Harvard University’s Berkman Center for Internet & Society is another Digital Natives scholar. He focuses on “key legal, social, and political implications of a generation “born digital” – those who grow up immersed in digital technologies, for whom a life fully integrated with digital devices is the norm.” Recently, Grasser introduced delegates at the Amsterdam Corporate Social Networking Conference to a thought-provoking observation of Digital Natives – “By age 20” said Gasser, “kids will have spent 20,000 hours online -the same amount of time a professional piano player would have spent practicing.” (Source – senior Forrester Research analyst Jeremiah Owyang). Interestingly, in his book Outliers: The Story of Success, author Malcolm Gladwell (Tipping point, Blink) introduces his “10,000 Hour Rule” – arguing that each and every successful person, every expert, had to invest at least 10,000 hours in practicing his area of specialty. Gasser estimates that the average Digital Native would have spent double that time online. Somehow I don’t find it surprising, as this serves to support the notion that Digital Natives are a breed on their own. 

 Digital Natives, said Gasser, are not determined by age but by the type and extent of their exposure to digital technologies.  In other words, Digital Natives are fully digerate persons. According to Gasser’s, Digital Natives …

  • 1. Are always online
  • 2. Have (or may have) multiple identities
  • 3. Are engaged in extensive disclosure of personal data
  • 4. Foster and support the culture of sharing
  • 5. Are creators, rather than passive users
  • 6. Have (and/or cultivate) developed information processing habits
  • 7. Engage in peer collaboration and online activism
  • 8. Learn through browsing  

In “Born Digital: Understanding the First Generation of Digital Natives “a book Gasser co-wrote with John Palfrey, Professor of Law and Vice Dean for Library and Information Resources at Harvard Law School, one finds an intriguing observation of Digital Natives – (this quote is taken from an excerpt of the book, offered on the book’s website): “They [Digital Natives] are joined by a set of common practices, including the amount of time they spend using digital technologies, their tendency to multitask, their tendency to express themselves and relate to one another in ways mediated by digital technologies, and their pattern of using the technologies to access and use information and create new knowledge and art forms.” 

Gamer Jinx Milea said that one of the best lessons children learn through video games is that standing still will get them killed quicker than anything else. The need for restless existence turns previous generation (older siblings, parents, grandparents) into observers, and, often, into terrified witnesses. American Former migratory worker, longshoreman and philosopher Eric Hoffer argued that “in times of radical change learners inherit the earth; while the learned find themselves beautifully equipped to deal with a world that no longer exists.” 

In trying to come to term and then interact with new generations of digerate people, Hoffer’s learned (aka Prensky’s Digital Immigrants) are facing an unenviable task. Judging by the media, ‘coming to terms’ may mean anything from grudge-acceptance to total capitulation. While parent seem to relax their muscles (TimesOnline reports that “Parents have become significantly more willing to allow their children to own a mobile phone … Widespread acceptance of the technology is allaying the health fears and concerns over bullying and inappropriate use that previously dominated debate on children’s use of mobile phones.”) schools and places of learning – those last bastions of conservatism – stay tightly put  in a last act of hopeless defiance. 

Are we losing touch with our Digital Natives?  

Search marketing expert Gord Hotchkiss offers a fascinating assessment of the question. Digital Natives, he says, are brain-wired differently. Over the years, our brain creates a myriad of pathways, based on our perception, understanding and interpretation of the environment in which we live. As we grow he says “our brains go through wholesale rewiring; we push against the constraints of our environment, including the boundaries set by our parents. It’s all part of growing up. The process is called pruning.”  Form birth, we accumulate new behavioral pathways and discard – or ‘prune’ – old and irrelevant ones, “concentrating on strengthening the ones we use more often. We focus on the mental skills most important for survival.”  

Our kids, argues Hotchkiss, are being exposed to new environments; their parents will not have any knowledge or perception of these environments and, therefore, no similar shared pathways “What happens when we expose our children to something we weren’t exposed to during this same pruning period? They simply become better at it. And they do it in a way that we can never duplicate.” (My emphasis). 

The result of what can only be described as upwards pressure by Digital Natives on Digital Immigrants is a marked change in existing bastions of the pre-digerate world: in a clear case of “If you can’t beat them…” it was announced that primary schools in England will drop studies of Victorian history and the Second world war, but will study Twitter and the Blogosphere.  

“Today we face a widening digital divide – not one based on the gap between the technology haves and have-nots – but by one resulting from the vast differences between how we grew up and how today’s generation(s) are growing up. Coming from another land and time, we are immigrants and foreigners in this digital landscape, speaking digital as second language. Some have us are better than others at adapting to the ways of this new land, but like all immigrants, most of us retain some degree of our accent.”  Ian Jukes “Understanding The New Digital Landscape, Kids & the New “Digital Divide” ” (accessed online here (PDF), 4 June 2017) 

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