The Myth of Digital Natives

There’s a myth that children are digital natives, at ease with IT, whilst adults are digital immigrants, at sea in a world of new developments. It’s a myth reinforced by the cliched stories of adults unable to program their video recorder (who has a video recorder nowadays, anyway?) or of mothers and fathers asking their children to enable the parental control on the latest piece of technology.

It’s an easy joke for a TV comedy, a piece of stock footage for a news report and another way for someone to make a name for themselves with a half-baked piece of research.

As anyone who has spent any time teaching children IT or programming will tell you, it’s not true.

Children may like to use devices, they may be "always on" the computer, but they rarely use them properly. I sat through a meeting recently were it was suggested that students should give staff in service training on how to use software. Great idea if the software in question is Tumblr or Snapchat, not such a good idea if we want people to use a word processor properly (I still despair at the number of people who don’t know how to use styles).

There may have been some reason to believe the Digital Natives myth fifteen or twenty years ago. Back when adults didn’t use IT that much, when computers were still making their way into the home and workplace. Back then, when children were the only ones to have experience of IT – maybe through gaming or exposure at school – it was easy to believe they were a race apart. But not any more.

Children are enthusiastic about many things: horses, football, fashion, music, cars… They often amass a great deal of information about their interests and can appear very knowledgeable, but knowing all the players in the premier division doesn’t make you a professional footballer, and knowing how to find the Easter Eggs in the latest computer game doesn’t make you an IT professional.

Apple, Microsoft, Google and the like have made great strides in making IT intuitive. This is a great thing, it means everyone shares in the benefits that computers bring. But that doesn’t mean everyone uses computers properly. Ask a Digital Native how to use PowerPoint and they’ll show you how to add images, music, animations and slide transitions. They won’t show you how to produce a consistent set of slides that support a spoken presentation.

That’s the sort of thing a Digital Immigrant is more likely to know about.

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