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.