Digital natives get lost, too!

Kids know the media. They multitask with ease, surfing the internet while watching a movie, writing an sms, making a call on Skype, listening to music on iTunes and reading a book (the latter might be reserved for the few remaining book-geeks). They navigate with a convincing sense of direction; never losing their bearings in what seems to bystanders to be an anarchistic audio-visual chaos.

At first glance this might seem obvious, as most people have probably seen (or heard about) a scenario like the above. In many books and articles on the subject, this is proposed as an almost archetypical situation, arguing that kids are digital experts. Or that they belong to a “Net Generation” with computers and the internet hardwired to their brains (who said crazy sci-fi?)(Well, actually, it seems that the use of technology does change processes in our brains, but in the same way that our brain has always adapted itself to new impulses).

Or that they are digital natives – born digital and as such, natives of the digital world. Like the na’vi on Pandora.

The origin of this concept can be traced back to the American author, Marc Prensky, who published the widely known article “Digital Natives, Digital Immigrants” at the turn of the century, wherein he claims that:

“”Our students today are all “native speakers” of the digital language of computers, video games and the Internet.”

With appealing and convincing clarity, Prensky argues for the dichotomy between the digitally competent kids and the equally incompetent adults, who have only recently immigrated into the digital world. As with the humans immigrating to Pandora, the majority are never able to fully understand this new world and its strange, blue inhabitants.

If I were Jesse Schell, I would probably call the idea of digital natives “total bullshit”. Clearly, I am not, and instead I will suggest an approach a bit more balanced. The essence, however, is covered sufficiently by the b-word.

The notion of digital natives is an oversimplified one, greatly lending itself to misunderstandings and faulty initiatives (or lack thereof). During the first decade of the new millennium, this has manifested as an inappropriate unwillingness to adress the issue of digital media and digital literacy in education, as teachers are often intimidated by the way kids seem to juggle with technology.

An incompetent native?

At the very core, the metaphor itself is flawed. Being a native of any kind never equals being a perfect speaker of your native tongue, deeper knowledge of linguistics etc. Even natives learn their language by socializing, training, exercising and so on.

digital native
Via Francis Anderson

Natives can very much be incompetent, and this of course also goes for the digital natives. They might be born into a world of digital media, but they are not automatically speaking some magic “digital language”.

Skills, competencies, literacy

Without knowing Prensky in person, I would guess he originally was inspired by a scenario similar to the one initiating this post, observing kids intensely immersed in several media experiences all at once. He thus states that kids today are “surrounded by and using computers, videogames, digital music players, video cams, cell phones, and all the other toys and tools of the digital age”.

So far, so good. I won’t oppose the idea, that kids are possibly engaged in a “heavier” use of media than any other structural group in society. Neither will I argue against the widely held belief, that kids are less fearful when approaching new media. They might even possess a certain curiosity-driven intuition, fuelling their seemingly competent use of these media. This, in some cases, allow them to master the technology – at a skill-based level, that is. They are able to use a computer, a cell phone, a television and they can retrieve funny videos on YouTube. Sure.

But this doesn’t make them neither digitally competent nor digitally literate. Both require more (much more) than just the simple ability to turn on a computer and play a game. It requires, for instance, the competence to critically evaluate the information found on the internet. It requires the development of analytical approaches, allowing the individual to understand the way different media work, relates to other media and is positioned within the larger media ecology.

On an even higher level of reflection, it is necessary to be able to reflect upon ones own use of and experience with media.

Even if we accept kids as skilled and with a certain intuitive way of using digital media, it should be clear, that they in most cases are neither competent nor literate. These higher levels of abstraction are seldomly reached without the support and guidance of tutors of some kind – e.g. teachers, parents etc.

1 kid = all kids?

Another hugely problematic trait of Prenskys framework is its tendency to make generalizations far beyond the limit of reason. It simply doesn’t make sense to assume, that children and youth are constituted as a completely homogenous group with equal approaches to digital technology. On the contrary, when looking at kids – even within the same class – we see a motley crowd, constituting a very heterogenous group. It almost goes without saying, that this diversity is also mirrored in the way, these kids approach, use and reflect upon various media.

In continuation of this, adults are not just one homogenous group either. We are not all digitally incompetent, helplessly left on the losing side of the digital divide. The dichotomy itself is a false misinterpretation placing us in a deadlock, where no adults dare to challenge the digital experts.

Goodbye, confusing concept!

If we could please leave this misunderstood metaphor behind, and move on, we would all be better off. Such a step forward might allow us to establish a much more inclusive, balanced and up-to-date approach to kids’ digital literacy. I don’t want to do Prensky or his metaphors injustice, and they might have served a purpose earlier on, when people had to acknowledge what it meant to grow up in a digital landscape. Yet, as Henry Jenkins argue in “Reconsidering Digital Immigrants…“, “the metaphor may be having the opposite effect now — implying that young people are better off without us and thus justifying decisions not to adjust educational practices to create a space where young and old might be able to learn from each other.”

Luckily, Jenkins is not alone, as a number of smart people (smarter than me, at least) have already challenged the simplicity of the dichotomy – native >< immigrants. Danish media researcher Mette Nyboe makes this unmistakingly clear in the book “Digital Literacy” (Digital Dannelse, my translation), where she states that:

[…] No children are born digitally competent. Through their media experiences in the digital media culture of their leisure time, children and youth develop knowledge and skills, which, with appropriate sparring, can be transformed into competence. But competence does not come by itself (my translation).

In “The ‘digital natives’ debate: A critical review of the evidence“, the authors thorougly examine the “digital native” discourses and arguments, and conclude that “they have been subjected to little critical scrutiny, are under-theorised and lack a sound empirical basis”. In addition, they reach other important conclusions along the way:

It may be that there is as much variation within the digital native generation as between the generations.

The picture beginning to emerge from research on young people’s relationships with technology is much more complex than the digital native characterisation suggests. While technology is embedded in their lives, young people’s use and skills are not uniform.

Finally, in relation to the “Web Use Project“, the article “Digital Na(t)ives? Variation in Internet Skills and Uses among Members of the “Net Generation”” was published very recently. In this article, Eszter Hargittai presents a study on internet use by college students, and instead of uniform expertise, Hargittai points to the diversity:

While popular rhetoric would have us believe that young users are generally savvy with digital media, data presented in this article clearly show that considerable variation exists even among fully wired college students when it comes to understanding various aspects of Internet use.

Regarding widespread assumptions about the inherent digital savvy of young users often referred to as ‘‘digital natives’,’ it is important to note that the data presented here do not support the premise that young adults are universally knowledgeable about the Web. Rather, we observe systematic variation in online know-how even among a highly wired group of young adults based on user background.

Hopefully it can no longer be doubted, that kids are not better off by themselves when it comes to digital technologies.

So please, don’t leave the natives by themselves. In spite of them being born into a digital world, they might get lost, too. Let us supply them with maps and compasses and support them in learning how to use these tools for navigating this rather confusing digital society.