Digital Natives? Some Ideas for Teachers

by Toni Bruce

“Digital natives” is one of those ‘hot’ terms that becomes popular because it seems to capture reality. And it has become a shorthand term for an entire generation. After all, aren’t all young people today digitally savvy, hooked on social media, and connected all the time, everywhere?  Isn’t there something fundamentally different about them?  Aren’t the rest of us “Digital Immigrants” who are doomed to forever trail in their wake, unable to fully grasp this brave ‘new’ world?

The idea of the Digital Native is most often attributed to Mark Prensky.  Here’s a five-minute discussion: Marc Prensky: Digital Natives (note his comment about book-reading: “we did back-of-the-envelope calculations to get all of these”).

Screen Shot 2015-08-05 at 8.11.43 pm

Helsper and Eynon summarise the view of a digital native as: “someone who multi-tasks, has access to a range of new technologies, is confident in their use of technologies, uses the Internet as a first port of call for information and … uses the Internet for learning as well as other activities” (2010, p. 506).

Apparently, you’re a digital immigrant if you were born before 1980, don’t go to the Internet first for information, print out rather than view work onscreen, and pick up a manual to learn how to do things rather than working it out online. What Bennett and Maton point out, and the reason for this blog post, is the growing body of evidence that challenges the “simple notion” of the digital native and “highlights the complexities” of young people’s engagements with technology (2010, p. 329).

A rapid-fire overview and critique of the digital native ‘generation’ idea comes from David Lowery of PBS (the USA public broadcaster) in the first 5:35 of this video clip.

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Researchers from several countries argue that the popular belief in digital natives has little basis in fact.  And they’ve made their point in quite strong terms, arguing that it generalises in very broad terms and ignores differences in how (and how effectively) young people actually use technology. Here’s the view of UK researchers Ellen Helsper & Rebecca Enyon:

  • We are not saying education should not change, but debates about change must be based on empirical evidence and not rhetoric” ( 2010, p. 518)

Then there’s Sue Bennett and Karl Maton from Australia, who reviewed a large body of research and concluded that:

  • The idea of the ‘digital natives’, a generation of tech-savvy young people immersed in digital technologies for which current education systems cannot cater, has gained widespread popularity on the basis of claims rather than evidence” (Bennett & Maton, 2010, p. 321)

Next we have Eszter Hargittai from the United States, who also believes there isn’t much evidence:

  • People who have grown up with digital media are often assumed to be universally savvy with information and communication technologies. Such assumptions are rarely grounded in empirical evidence” (Hargittai, 2010, p. 92)

Their views are supported by Christopher Jones and Binhui Shao’s (2011) review of 165 pieces of research, after which they make three key points:

  • “there is now good evidence to suggest that there is no simple generational divide (p. 35) and
  • “the gap between students and their teachers is neither fixed nor is the gulf so large that it cannot be bridged” (p. 40)
  • “it would be a mistake for government and government agencies to take the claims of the Net Generation and Digital Natives at face value” (p. 45)

And Jones & Shao (2011) also point out the negativity of the digital native narrative regarding teachers:

  • “The Net Generation and Digital Native argument has been used to justify a rather odd deficit model of teacher development. Teachers are urged to change in order to accommodate the new generation of students but they are told that no matter how hard they try they will not be fully successful and they will retain their Digital immigrant accent” (p. 40).

In fact, the claims currently being made for the revolution created by mobile technologies are rather like deja-vu (meaning we’ve already seen them before). The link below is a great video, by Derek Muller, whose 2008 PhD at the University of Sydney looked at designing effective multimedia for physics education.  In it, he discusses the claims that each new form of new technology will revolutionise education (from the chalk board to “motion pictures” to radio to television to ipads), and makes a powerful case for why teachers (rather than technology) still matter, perhaps more than ever.

Derek Muller technology revolutionise education

So what have we learned from looking at the work of these researchers that is useful for understanding today’s youth (and hopefully for creating more effective learning contexts for them):

1. That socio-economic status, gender, racial or ethnic background, and level of education all impact how much young people use the Internet, the range of activities they undertake online, and how confident they feel about Internet use.  This is not to say that age doesn’t matter (there are age differences in use, confidence and level of activity online) but within similar age groups, differences still remain.  For example, first year University students in the USA who used the internet more tended to:

  • have parents with higher levels of education
  • be male
  • be white or Asian-American
  • be of higher socio-economic status

Perception of Web ‘know-how’ (lower for females, lower socio-economic status, African-American or Hispanic students) also had a big impact on how students engaged online. But these broad trends were reduced when perception of Internet ‘know how’ was higher, when students had their own devices and multiple places where they could access the Internet, and had been online for more years.

2. That school-aged youth (14-17) were the most likely to:

  • use the internet (90%, although more than 75% of all groups under 55 used it)
  • go to it first for school or work information, multi-task (87% of young people versus below 60% for over 55s)
  • multi-task (87%, with only those under 35 fitting into the 75% or more of users)
  • and feel confident about their use (82% versus those over 45, less than 50% of whom felt their skills were good or excellent)

At the same time, 14-17-year-olds were the least likely to use the Internet for:

  • shopping, travel, e-government, finance, or civic participation (the latter being the domain of the over 55s).

3. That breadth of use (the number and different kinds of activities done online) has the biggest impact on whether people use the Internet for learning activities such as fact-checking, training and learning, and following current affairs or personal interests.  At the same time, for each activity, certain groups of UK adults were more likely to use the Internet.  Younger people and those with higher levels of education were most likely to fact-check. This was the same for training and learning – young people and those with more education were more likely – but so too were women and those who saw themselves as experts in the area. Finally, older people and men were more likely to follow current affairs and interests.

4. That students are not actively demanding changes in pedagogy related to social networking and digital technologies (as some digital native fans argue), but do respond positively to well-conceived, clearly explained teaching and learning strategies that are effectively embedded and evaluated (Jones & Shao, 2011). Indeed, they argue that “students prefer a moderate use of media for teaching and they still value ‘live teaching’ highly” (p. 39).

Parting Thoughts

These results seem to suggest that youth and teachers need to critically resist the generalisation that all young people are digital natives, and embrace activities that can do something about lessening the digital divide between young people. Perception of skill, autonomy (access to own device) and time spent online all seem to be important factors:  What can educators do the improve these for the young people in their classrooms today?


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), 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), 92-113.

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

Jones, C. & Shao, B. (2011). The net generation and digital natives: Implications for higher education. Milton Keynes, UK: The Open University.


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