Debating the Digital Native by Julianne Peeling & Jessica Crutchley

In the video Do ‘Digital Natives’ Exist, produced by the PBS Idea Channel, host Mike Rugnetta examines how humans learn about and relate to technology and new media. With a simple statement of his thesis, “There’s no such thing as a digital native,” Rugnetta goes on to dispute the controversial assumption that children and young adults have a better grasp of new technologies than their parents and grandparents.

In a brief yet thorough overview, Rugnetta introduces educator and writer Marc Prensky’s theory that the dawn of the digital age has resulted in two distinct classes of people: “digital natives,” those who have been born into the digital age and have an innate understanding of computers, video games and the Internet; and “digital immigrants,” those who were born before the rise of these technologies and have had to learn to navigate them. Rugnetta also share the ideas of John Palfrey and Urs Gasser, who have similarly proposed that the year 1980 marks a divide between a population who has grown up alongside digital technologies and therefore has an intimate, nearly intrinsic familiarity with them, and an older group of individuals who has had to teach itself to use these technologies.

While such arguments have been highly popularized and have held much sway, Rugnetta suggests there is a danger in assuming that today’s kids are born “native speakers” of the digital age. Just like language, digital technologies and their uses are something that must be learned through both context and practice, says Rugnetta. Both younger and older generations have the capacity to learn and apply new technologies.

In addition, not all children share the same access to new media. Access is a matter of privilege, Rugnetta argues. Furthermore, even having access to technologies does not guarantee that users understand the meaning that those technologies hold. While a user may be comfortable with a technology, this does not necessarily mean that user comprehends the powers of that technology to create positive or negative outcomes.

Though digital natives may be as imaginary as Bigfoot, the implications of digital media are very real. Users of media, as well as leaders in the education and information fields, have a responsibility to educate themselves and others about the capabilities and consequences that come with adopting new technologies.

Julianne Peeling with contributions from Jessica Crutchley, both of whom are employees of the Baltimore County Public Library.


Posted on March 1, 2014, in Literacy. Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

  1. I don’t believe that being born in an age of digital technology automatically makes you an expert user. If you work in a public library you know there are plenty of teens who have little concept of how to search for and evaluate information. BUT, there is one area where I think the “digital native” concept applies, and that is how people approach a new technology. If you watch kids (little ones, teens, etc.) when they get their hands on a new piece of technology, they will just immediately start playing with it, pushing buttons and tapping the screen to see what it does. In contrast, we have people come into the library who got a new ereader for Christmas or a birthday and it’s been sitting in the package for 2 months because they were too intimidated to take it out and try it without someone to guide them through the process.

    This is anecdotal evidence, obviously, but I’ve taught a lot of computer classes and seen a lot of people engage with tech over the years. In my experience, the majority of adults who were not raised with digital tech still have some level of anxiety with new tech. They may feel really comfortable with their smartphone, but if they get a tablet or a new computer it stresses them out until they get enough practice with it to feel familiar. The positive experience with one technology doesn’t translate into comfort with other new tech. Kids don’t seem to have that issue.

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