Myth-busting: children are digital natives

In the third article in this ongoing series, Dr Pedro de Bruyckere skewers another common educational myth. This issue: ‘Children are digital natives.’

There is some truth in every lie #3: Digital natives

One of the first myths I’ve ever fact checked was the idea of digital natives, a term coined in 2001 by Marc Prenzky.(1,2) What is the basic idea? Young people are born in a digital world and are very good at using technology, and so are digital natives. One the other hand, most of their parents are really bad at using technology, and so are called digital immigrants. (And no, they don’t have to leave the country – yet.)

And there appears to be some truth in it, because whenever I ask teachers or parents if they ever needed some help from a younger person with technology, most of them nod in shame. So on the surface it does seem that our children are better at using technology.

Well, as always, it’s a bit more complicated than that. First of all, there are two myths underneath the idea of the digital native:

  • Kids and youngsters are good at using technology.
  • Other generations aren’t that good.

Paul Kirschner and I wrote a large article(3) reviewing the evidence for this concept since 2001, and found that both ideas are wrong:

  • Information-savvy digital natives do not exist.
  • There is no relationship between age and internet know-how.

Research by Hargittai(4,5) shows that it is actually higher income and higher education that are related to being better at technology and using online information.
But wait – why do we need their help when we’re stuck, then? Well, because we need to make a distinction between ‘operating the buttons’ on one side and ‘strategic and information skills’ on the other side. And it seems that in relation to figuring out how technology works then ‘the younger the better’ seems to be the rule with preschoolers – even beating grad students.

But when discussing the use of technology for strategic purposes or to get information from online sources, then those so-called digital natives are often really bad at it. McGrew et al.(6) checked this with children and students from middle school, high school, and colleges in 12 states. Across tasks and grade levels, students struggled to effectively evaluate online claims, sources, and evidence.

What does this mean for teachers and schools? Well, a few things:

  1. The claim that ‘digital natives exist’ can never be used a basis for designing education.
  2. Knowing that this claim is false is a good reason to teach strategic competences, ensure sufficient knowledge to be able to factcheck online information, etc.
  3. Conversely, abolishing technology completely from schools is as extreme and unproductive as thinking technology will change education dramatically. Children and students need to be taught how to work with technology wisely.

I also think it isn’t a mistake if a teacher asks help from their students with the ‘buttons’. Make them your chief technology officer (CTO), but do remember that those students need a CEO in their learning process – and that is you.

Further reading:

Lucas, C. G., Bridgers, S., Griffiths, T. L. and Gopnik, A. (2014) ‘When children are better (or at least more open- minded) learners than adults: developmental differences in learning the forms of causal relationships’, Cognition 131 (2) pp. 284–299.


References

1. Prensky, M. (2001) ‘Digital natives, digital immigrants’, On the Horizon 9 (5), pp. 1–6. Available online at: www.bit.ly/2EXaGe5.
2. Prensky, M. (2006) Don’t bother me Mom – I’m learning! New York, NY: Paragon House.
3. Kirschner, P. A. and De Bruyckere, P. (2017) ‘The myths of the digital native and the multitasker’, Teaching and Teacher Education 67 (1) pp. 135–142.
4. Hargittai, E. and Hinnant, A. (2008) ‘Digital inequality differences in young adults’ use of the internet’, Communication Research 35 (5) pp. 602–621.
5. Hargittai, E. (2010) ‘Digital na(t)ives? Variation in internet skills and uses among members of the “net generation”’, Sociological Inquiry 80 (1) pp. 92–113.
6. McGrew, S., Breakstone, J., Ortega, T., Smith, M. and Wineburg, S. (2018) ‘Can students evaluate online sources? Learning from assessments of civic online reasoning’, Theory & Research in Social Education 46 (2) pp. 165–193. Also: Wineburg, S. and McGrew, S. (2017) ‘Why students can’t google their way to the truth’, Amass 21 (3) pp. 38–40.