In January 2023 I joined the DEQUAL project, and my first avenue of interrogation was to delve into the term “digital natives” that I have always felt unease about regarding whom we mean and what we mean when we use it. Now I gained opportunity to have a closer look at the concept as a part of so-called “digital natives” debate.
The “digital native” debate has been refuted on several occasions due to its problematic assumptions. Despite of its weak theoretical and empirical foundations, the debate has permeated our culture to mark generational gap in the technology skills and use between young people and older generations (for more, see Bennett et al. 2008; Bennett & Maton 2010). The origins of the debate date back to the concepts of “the net generation” (Tapscott 1998) and “digital natives” (Prensky 2001).
One core claim of the debate has been that young people are technologically savvy, because they have grown up during the technology, Internet, and social media explosion. Especially in terms of communication and interaction, “digital natives” are believed to be dependent on the communication and information technologies, Internet, and social media. The debate emphasizes both the positive and negative aspects of this dependence. On one hand, “digital natives” benefit from their digital bond to the Internet as they have greater opportunities for searching and finding a sense of community and belonging as they are not limited to offline locations and time. On the other hand, the widespread cultural concern has been that the excessive use of Internet and social media decreases face to face interaction and this way contributes to detrimental mental health. (Turner 2015).
The above-mentioned widespread claim fails to recognize differences in young people in terms of, for example, different age and socioeconomic background. It also easily stigmatizes older generations as technologically unskilled or illiterate. With these strong generalizations, the debate puts individuals of different age (and therefore generations) in differential positions in everyday life in terms of their presumed technology and Internet skills, usage, benefits, and harms. Young people in particular might feel pressure to live up or contest the assumptions and expectations of them as “digital natives” in their everyday practices and social relations.
It was interesting to notice that originally, the terms of “digital natives” and “the net generation” were used to define Millennials / Generation Y (born 1980-2000), because they grew up during the internet, digital communication technologies and social media explosion. Yet, with the emergence of Generation Z (born 1997-2012) and Generation Alpha (born after 2010), the members of these generations have been increasingly considered as “digital natives”. What is unique about Generation Z is that it is the first generation that has been immersed in Internet technology at a very young age. By contrast, Generation Alpha has been immersed in Internet technology at birth or even before it.
Digressively, a concept of generation in itself is an interesting and controversial construct (e.g., Kertzer 1983; Mannheim 1952; Parry & Irwin 2011). It groups people in about twenty-year span of time based on their shared birth years and distinctive historical events, which are believed to provide common grounds for them to develop shared values, attitudes and features. Generational cutoff lines are rather arbitrary as they serve as constructs to examine differences between generations in terms of, for example, work experiences or gender relations in family life and at work.
Technological shifts provide an interesting generation-shaping aspect that interact with key life course transitions to shape individuals’ experiences, practices, and views of the world. Therefore, the “digital natives” debate could further benefit from the generational lens of looking into the implications of growing up in different technological environments. In this respect, each generational cohort of “digital natives” is different, but its generational imprints might undergo substantial changes as its members age. For example, as young people older they might value their data privacy while interacting online to a greater extent. Each generation of “digital natives” is exposed to different media education, data protection legislation, policies and social etiquette surrounding use of mobile technologies, just to mention a few. Thus, tracking each generational cohort of “digital natives” over time will become of particular importance for members of Generations Z and Alpha.
Bennett S., Maton K. & Kervin L. (2008) The ‘digital natives’ debate: A critical review of evidence. British Journal of Educational Technology 39, 775–86.
Bennett S. & Maton K. (2010) Beyond the ‘digital natives’ debate: Towards a more nuanced understanding of students’ technology experiences. Journal of Computer Assisted Learning, 26(5), 321–331.
Kertzer D. (1983) Generation as a sociological problem. Annual Review of Sociology 9, 125–149.
Mannheim, K. (1952) The problem of generations. In Essays on the Sociology of Knowledge (ed P. Kecskemeti), pp. 276–322. Routledge, London.
Parry E. & Urwin P. (2011) Generational differences in work values. International Journal of Management Reviews 13, 79–96.
Prensky M. (2001) Digital natives, digital immigrants. On the Horizon 9, 1–6.
Tapscott D. (1998) Growing up Digital: The Rise of the Net Generation. McGraw Hill, NewYork.
Turner A. (2015) Generation Z: Technology and social interest. Journal of Individual Psychology 71, 103–113.