by Priscilla Warren

The idea of a ‘digital native’ neatly capsulizes a generation of post-1980s children who have grown up in a digital world. Questions of how education needs to change to accommodate these ‘digital natives’ became a source of concern and debate among educators and scholars alike. However, this idea of a homogeneous generation of ‘digital natives’ has now been firmly rejected by many. Why did this identity take hold so readily in people’s minds and if such an identity does exist, can a pre-1980s ‘child’ ever hope to come to grips with technology as the ‘native’?

Hargittai (2010) calls this “popular rhetoric” (p.108) where “all young adults are universally knowledgeable about the Web… often referred to as ‘digital natives’…”, as “rarely grounded in empirical evidence” (p.92).

Bennett & Maton (2010) agree, that although a popular idea, it is made “on the basis of claims rather than evidence. Recent research has shown flaws in the argument that there is an identifiable generation or even a single type of highly adept technology user” (p.321).

Helsper & Eynon (2010) concur, that “generation is only one of the predictors of advanced interaction with the Internet” (p. 503).

How is it then, that this notion of a ‘new breed’ of student spread so quickly on the basis of claims rather than evidence? This ‘moral panic’ over ‘new students’ is not an isolated case. It is a recurrent phenomenon where generations of students have been labelled as different and leads to debate over the need to overhaul the education system to accommodate these differences. Girls being allowed at school, the middle and lower classes being given access to university, the impact of immigration on school resources, special education students integrating within ‘normal’ government schools – each change is met with a twisting of hands and worried glances about these ‘new’ students and how ‘they’ are at odds with current education systems. Fear of the ‘unknown’ seems to be the root cause behind this ‘blind acceptance’ of such a technologically deterministic view of a generation as the ‘digital native’.

Helsper & Eynon “argues that we often erroneously presume a gap between educators and students and that if such a gap does exist, it is definitely possible to close it” (2010, p.508). Once we brush aside the assumption that only a particular generation has the skills, experience and aptitude to live in a digital world, we can then look at what classifies one as a ‘digital native’ in order to bridge the gap that holds back some from acquiring this skillful use of technology.

According to Helsper & Eynon, a digital native is:

  • “someone who comes from a media-rich household
  • who uses the Internet as a first port of call for information
  • multi-tasks using ICTs and
  • uses the Internet to carry out a range of activities particularly those with a focus on learning” (2010, p.515)

Increasing one’s interaction with information and communication technologies will accordingly increase one’s skills and experience, thus leading to a more confident and adept technology user. Just as one wants to improve any skill like learning to drive a car, learning to swim or learning a new language, the effort and time invested equals the dividends of success and confidence later on. There are a myriad of choices for those who wish to ‘upskill’ in the area of technology, whether it be through books, youtube, courses or personal experimentation online. Riding the wave of technology does not need to be a daunting task. Setting up small, achievable goals, asking for advice from more advanced users and just ‘giving it a go’ takes away the mystery of what was once unknown.

Speaking from experience, as a pre-1980s ‘child’, I am taking up the advice up I have given to you. Alongside my usual web surfing and email, I have also stretched myself by taking a University course about Critical Media Literacy, I am currently completing my third online educational blog, I have tried my hand at Twitter (baby steps at the moment), joined Pinterest and am trying to breed a special monster of my own on ‘MySingingMonsters’. Fear of the ‘unknown’ does not need to hold you back – the more you experiment with what the digital revolution has to offer, the more you disprove the saying ‘You can’t teach an old dog new tricks’.


Bennett, S., & Maton, K. (2010). Beyond the ‘digital natives’ debate: Towards a more nuanced understanding of students’ technology experiences. Journal of Computer Assisted Learning, 26(5), pp. 321-331.

Hargittai , E. (2010). Digital Na(t)ives? Variation in internet skills and uses among members of the “net generation”. Sociological Inquiry, 80(1), pp. 92-113.

Helsper, E.J., & Eynon, R. (2010). Digital natives: where is the evidence?, British Educational Research Journal, 36(3), pp. 503-520.

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  1. This is a great blog Priscilla! You helped me develop a clear understanding of what Helsper and Eynon claim a digital native is. Writing about your personal experience is something that I can really relate to. I personally found that it was very encouraging when you said ” Setting up small, achievable goals, asking for advice from more advanced users and just ‘giving it a go’ takes away the mystery of what was once unknown”.


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