Friday, 14 February 2020

The Myth of Digital Natives

Many of us drank the Kool-Aid on this one: the concept of digital natives.

The idea behind the digital natives concept was that those born after 1980 would be so normalised to technology that they would effortlessly understand its use and would outstrip those older than themselves in technological nous, application and efficiencies (Prensky, 2001a, 2001b, 2005, 2009).

It was a great premise, but it wasn't borne out by the research (Brown & Czerniewicz, 2010; Margaryan & Littlejohn, 2008; Stoerger, 2009). Koutropoulos (2011) summarised Prensky's arguments, illustrating some of the fallacies in the assumption that younger people will naturally be sound users of technology.
  • Firstly the argument assumes a binary state: younger people are 'digital natives' because they were born since the advent of computers. Those born before computers are 'digital immigrants'  (Koutropoulos, 2011). We are each one or the other, and we cannot change our base state.  This idea seems to fall back into the 'born verus made' argument, or the idea of horoscopes. The science doesn't indicate that if we are born on a certain date that we are imbued with certain characteristics (and there is some argument about whether the date is 1980 or 1984). Further, the idea of a date with before and after contains an implied power relationship: the 'digital natives' own technology skills, while the 'immigrants' don't (Koutropoulos, 2011). It also implies that education is futile: there is no point training older people because they are 'digital immigrants' and therefore can't learn (Helsper & Enyon, 2011).
  • Secondly, the argument appears to have made an assumption that 'digital natives' everywhere will have the same access to technology, the same desire to use technology, and the same ability to understand and learn technology. This too is not borne out by the research. Research into 'digital natives' in South Africa, the UK, the US, and Australia reflect differing levels of technology access, uptake, and focii (Brown & Czerniewicz, 2010; Koutropoulos, 2011; Margaryan & Littlejohn, 2008; Stoerger, 2009). 
  • Thirdly, we could reasonably expect 'digital natives' to be superb users of technology. The use of technology apparently rewires their brains to process information differently to previous generations. Research has found this to be unsupported by evidence (Brown & Czerniewicz, 2010). 
  • Fourthly, the innate skill that 'digital natives' are expected to have will give them the ability and flair to focus on solving digital problems when roadblocks are encountered. However, research appears to be finding that 'digital natives' lack the grit to persevere with non-intuitive applications or systems (Koutropoulos, 2011, citing Garcia & Qin, 2007).
  • Fifthly, if when you were born is the key driver of technical nous, what about those who created and designed the world that 'digital natives' inhabit (Stoerger, 2009)? I would assume that those software and hardware designers are at least as able as 'digital natives' are assumed to be. 
The 'digital native' idea is an interesting one, but - like VARK Learning Styles, Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs, Dale's Cone of Experience, and Generational Theory - it too is a myth. We should not perpetuate it, and we should challenge it whenever we find it.


  • Brown, C. & Czerniewicz, L. (2010). Debunking the ‘digital native’: beyond digital apartheid, towards digital democracy. Journal of Computer Assisted Learning, 26(5), 357–369.
  • Helsper, E. & Enyon, R. (2011). Digital natives: where is the evidence? British Educational Research Journal, 36(3), 503-520.
  • Koutropoulos, A. (2011). Digital Natives: Ten Years  After. MERLOT Journal of Online Learning and Teaching, 7(4), 525-538. Retrieved from
  • Margaryan, A., & Littlejohn, A. (2008). Are digital natives a myth or reality?: Students’ use of technologies for learning. Glasgow Caledonian University Insight Paper. Retrieved from
  • Prensky, M. (2009). H. Sapiens Digital: From Digital Immigrants and Digital Natives to Digital Wisdom. Innovate: Journal of Online Education, 5(3). Retrieved from
  • Prensky, M. (2005). Listen to the Natives. Learning in the Digital Age, 63(4), 8-13.
  • Prensky, M. (2001a). Digital Natives, Digital Immigrants Part 1. On The Horizon, 9(5), 1-6.
  • Prensky, M. (2001b). Digital Natives, Digital Immigrants Part 2: Do They Really Think Differently?. On the Horizon, 9(6), 1-5.
  • Stoerger, S. (2009). The digital melting pot: Bridging the digital native-immigrant divide. First Monday, 14(7). Retrieved from

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