The Myth of the Digital Native: Why Older People aren't Necessarily Worse at Technology

Fagjun | Published 2017-08-03 19:25

Photo via Sage Vita


If you were born after 1980 (1984 for some), then you are a digital native.


Digital natives are people who grew up in the digital age, and thus grew up around digital technology. Digital immigrants, in contrast, are people who had to learn to use digital technology as adults. Thus, we have stereotype of the older technology users, confused by all these strange new terms and behaviors, like newcomers to a foreign land. It's a distinction that we—young and old—have simply taken as a fact of life. Old dogs, new tricks, after all.


Marc Prensky, an educator, coined the term “digital native” in 2001. Prensky wrote that these digital natives are multi-taskers that can deftly handle the multiple streams of information that flow out of technology. Digital natives, according to Prensky, are the people that businesses and educational institutions should adapt and cater to.


Are Digital Natives Really Better at Technology?


However, a new research now says that digital natives are a myth. They're a construct with the latest iPhone at hand. As such, trying to reconfigure traditional practices to accommodate digital natives is like trying to form a curriculum for yetis.


This isn't the first time that researchers have questioned the existence of digital natives. Other previous studies have found that millennials—the epitome of digital natives—aren't better at using technology than older generations are. Perhaps more surprisingly, millennials don't really use technology more often as well.


The new research has also found that we as humans don't automatically or easily learn to use present technology. This is evidenced by the fact that we don't actually multi-task—do multiple things at once—when we use technology. Sure, we may check and answer emails while we have Netflix on, but we're not checking our email and watching Stranger Things at once. Our brains are actually flipping back and forth between he two. Our attention thus isn't fully on one thing or the other. A digital native therefore isn't actually better at using technology than someone from an older generation is.


How Your Generation Defines Expectations for You


These findings are important when it comes to business and, more importantly, educational policies. For example, using new technology in classes for the sake of using new technology might not be helpful. Just because students are young doesn't mean that new technology will be better for them. Any policy or technical shifts should have concrete evidence as basis, not assumptions like the distinction between digital natives and digital immigrants.


In terms of business practices, the distinction can also have some repercussions. For example, employers may prefer to hire younger employees, even though there's no assurance that younger hires can already use the necessary technology. It's also possible that older hires can learn the technology the business uses just as well as younger hires can.


The digital native is a myth, and so is the digital immigrant. Whether you were born before 1980 or after, you're not any more or less adept at technology. More importantly, other people shouldn't decide how adept you are at technology for you.

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