Please Stop Calling Kids Digital Natives: It’s Wrong and It’s Dangerous

TLDR: Our students do not have some kind inborn, innate understanding of technology. It is not woven into their DNA and it is not pre-programmed into them like some kind of operating system. They like technology and use it fearlessly. But they need careful and deliberate training. To deprive them of this is to deprive them of an essential set of skills they will need in the world beyond school.

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Even though he didn’t coin them, the terms digital native and digital immigrant were popularized by Marc Prensky in his 2001 article entitled Digital Natives, Digital Immigrants. These terms distinguish between the younger generations born into a technology saturated world, and those who grew up analogue – before the rise of personal devices and internet connectivity.

Prensky’s main reason for using this metaphor was to argue that schools (still largely run by ‘immigrants’) need to begin integrating technology in order to reach and engage these ‘natives’.

These days, though, the terms have become corrupted and are used to imply different things: that adults need to be very patiently trained in order to use technology effectively, and that tech-savvy kids can just get on with it. Both of these unintended consequences are wrong. And the latter is actually very dangerous.

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The immigrant versus native idea was always only intended as a metaphor. There is no scientific evidence to suggest that there is any difference with how quickly or effectively people born before or after 1980 can learn to use technology. There is actually some evidence to suggest that the reverse is true, just as non-native language speakers can acquire a new language more quickly. But this has not stopped an entire cottage industry growing up around the terms.

You’ll often hear adults (presumably born before 1980) using their immigrant status as an excuse for their lack of confidence in using technology – even though most of them can actually use a variety of technologies quite effectively.

But it is the other notion, the one where we presume that young people are fine with using technology and don’t need our help in learning to using it more effectively that concerns me deeply. To the extent that I think we need to stop using the term ‘digital natives’ to describe them. (Ditto with ‘digital wisdom’, or ‘digital resident’, or any other similar terms.)

By and large, young people are incredibly competent at using digital technology… for entertainment. They can easily learn to play games, videos, and music on their devices, as well as engaging with one another on social media. (And yes, they can set things up fearlessly just as some of us could learn to program the VCR without the manual). But, frankly, they are not good at using technology for much else. And even in the realms mentioned above, kids fall prey to bullying, piracy, ineffective time management, cyber stalking and a host of other ills.

Youngsters need to be trained to use technology more effectively. And if they are not properly trained, we risk creating a generation of technology refugees who are unable to survive in the modern world. They will become the victims of technology, rather than masters of it.

Kids must be carefully coached to research safely and effectively, to prepare engaging presentations, websites and other creative artifacts, to manage their time and administrative tasks effectively, to communicate politely and professionally, to collaborate with one another digitally, and, indeed, to use social media more responsibly.

Schools which have begun to integrate technology must take heed of the fact that kids need as much tech training as older adults do. Perhaps more so. Presuming that young people will just somehow know how to do all these things naturally, without being trained, is a dangerous idea because it leaves them unprotected. And it robs them of the opportunity to learn a key set of essential life and professional skills they will need throughout their lives.

We need to carve out more time in our classrooms to train kids in using technology properly. And this should not just be left to a handful of specialists. It needs to happen in every classroom, and it needs to be reinforced constantly – like any other set of skills.

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2 comments

  1. Hi Sean,

    A great post on many levels. Thanks for sharing these important points. “Digital natives” may be regular and comfortable consumers of technology but generally lack understanding of how to create content. I’m reminded of the quote by Mitch Resnick (Scratch creator) who also challenges the terms. He says children’s tech use is like reading but never learning to write (or something along those lines). Plus, it’s so important that we teach students to use it responsibly!

    Great post!

    Adam

    Liked by 1 person

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