Report: ‘Digital Natives’: A Myth?

POLIS, the LSE and London College of Communications’ journalism research and policy initiative, recently released a report into the concept of ‘digital native’, examining whether young people really are imbued with an innate, and by implication superior, understanding of technology.

I wrote about this last year and my review of the literature led me to the conclusion that the idea of the ‘digital native’ was no more than a construction, created primarily it seems to provoke a sense of difference between the generations and, from that, a moral panic around how technology is allegedly affecting younger people.

In the introduction to his report, co-authored with Ranjana Das, Charlie Beckett says:

Myths can be useful ways for societies to tell stories about themselves. They can help us preserve our values and cope with change. So the idea that young people are particularly, even naturally adept at using new media technologies is comforting and perhaps even exciting. Even if older adults find digital devices and processes challenging we can reassure ourselves that the next generation will take to them effortlessly and creatively. I regularly hear from middle aged digital enthusiasts as well as the technophobes how their teenage children can do amazing and/or disturbing things online. They blog, game and network on a variety of platforms, often multi-tasking, producing sophisticated and rich patterns of communication and expression. This is wonderful and quite often true. But as the evidence and analysis of this report shows, it is a myth that this kind of youthful dexterity and literacy is somehow inevitable or ubiquitous. And this matters. As Professor Livingstone says, if we don’t understand the reality of young people’s use of the Internet, then we won’t realize how important it is to them and how vital it is to provide the skills and resources for them to make the myth a reality.

The fact is that young people experience the same opportunities and challenges as everyone else who uses digital technologies. The cultural and social barriers to conventional literacies appear to replicate themselves online. A young person who struggles to read a book will quite likely find online navigation difficult, too. There may be magical things that we can do online, but there is no miraculous power that changes intellectual frogs into digital princes. Those people growing up over the last decade or so may well be more familiar with a world of virtual and networked culture and communications. However, individual youths have not been endowed by some freakish evolutionary process with exceptional technological powers.

Furthering our understanding of how young people use, understand and relate to digital technology is essential to business. Too many times I have heard business people talk about how the ‘Facebook Generation will demand social tools’, when the anecdotal evidence I have is that the Facebook Generation doesn’t much see a need to use social tools in the workplace and would see the use of Facebook by their employers as an invasion of their personal space.

The truth is that all generations show a distribution of technological aptitude, and I’d put money on it being a normal distribution at that. There may be a difference in the width of the central hump of the bell curve, due simply to the increase in opportunity to interact with technology, but there no generation is born with an innate ability to grok tech.

This should ring alarm bells in any business whose HR policy has focused on attracting young employees with the assumption that those people will be better at technology. If you’re hoping that the youngsters will save your business from technological decline, you’re very much mistaken. Such a policy also ignores the vast pool of older tech-literate people who have grown up with the technology and who understand it in their bones.

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