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Myth of the digital native

LAST week we learned that six-year-olds understand digital technology better than 45-year-olds.

In other words, my seven-year-old, since he's been born to this startlingly advanced digital generation, probably has a far better grip on my iPad, phone and laptop than I do.

Read beyond the headlines which accompanied the publication of Ofcom's research, however, and we find that this is not precisely true. The survey was looking at digital awareness, not understanding: what people thought they knew about, rather than what they really knew. So what it reveals is not that six-year-olds actually understand digital technology better, but that they think they do. And as many parents will confirm, thinking they know better is often a gift of the young.

It is possible to assess your own DQ, or digital quotient, on the Ofcom website, where you can find a shorter version of the survey. In answering the questions, I only lied a little bit. For instance, I said that sometimes people came to me for advice on technology. Those people would be my sons, aged five and seven, and my slightly technophobic husband. I also said I knew a bit about Snapchat and Google Glasses when really I'd just heard of them. Surprisingly, I got a score of 112, which, looking at the graph puts me only just downwind of the digital natives. I imagine if I'd been six years old and filling in this test I would have exaggerated a lot more. In short, it strikes me all you need to be digitally aware these days is to believe that you are digitally aware.

What concerns me about this particular research is that it's already been used widely to support the prevalent myth of the "digital native": the idea that the millennial generation (today's teenagers and children) are tech-savvy by virtue of when they were born. This is at least an over-simplification, as a number of debunking academics have pointed out. Among them is Professor Eszter Hargittai of Northwestern University in the US, who has studied digital skills among American students and young adults and found that "there is large variation in internet skills" among them, "often related to their socioeconomic status" and factors such as income and education.

Yet still, this notion of the tech-savvy child, or "digital native", is getting our knickers in a twist as we panic over the rewiring of their brains, or fret over our inability to keep up with their dazzling screen-swipe skills. One problem with this is that when we allow this notion to ­preoccupy our thoughts and fears, we miss the very important issue that the real digital ­divisions are not generational, but socio-economic. Digital inequality is rife.

The other problem is that the "digital native" myth tends to leave adults - who should be teaching the next generation how to deal with the world, including technology - simply raising our hands in horror and either shrugging and leaving them to it, or turning off the machine and vowing to raise them tech-free. I'm inclined to some of this behaviour myself. I'm not without anxiety about so-called "screen time". When one of my boys is using an iPad, I often hover nearby with a kitchen timer, saying he can only have 10 minutes.

But the truth is that my seven-year-old is not transparently more adept than me at using my iPad. He frequently needs help. More often than not he wails for assistance. When I see my kids randomly swiping the screen, I am not dazzled by their natural tech-flair. Rather they seem just like another generation of kids playing with a toy.

Meanwhile, look around at these supposedly highly-advanced teen digital natives and what do you see them doing? Mostly they're on social media, or watching a video, or playing a game app - hardly advanced skills. This gulf between us and them is not about technology, it's about the way teens and young adults communicate, a phenomenon that has been a mystery to every successive adult generation.

Eszter Hargittai's research has revealed a wide range of abilities among the young. She found that though some young adults had very sophisticated skills, others lack very basic ones, such as knowing how to read web addresses and understand basic email functionality.

By assuming all young people are savant-like digital natives we risk letting them down. And, as Hargittai points out, we are also "perpetuating societal inequalities that exist among the more and less privileged". She has identified American groups which tend not to be as technologically savvy and they include "women, students of Hispanic origin, African-American students and students whose parents have lower levels of education". I imagine there are similar patterns with equivalent demographic groups here.

Forget the notion of the digital native. We are all of us - Babyboomers, Generation X-ers, Millennials and the rest - in this digital world together. If we're smart, we'll try to teach the young how to navigate it, just as every adult generation has tried to teach its children before.

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Education

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