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Digital natives – are they really?

It is often said that young people are ‘digital natives’, implying that they’ve grown up with the internet and understand it better than their parents.

In fact, this can be misleading. The American sociologist Eszter Hargittai has shown that there are significant differences among all age groups when it comes both to technical skills and media literacy. 

Teenagers are often very experienced users of social networks and may well be familiar with the latest gadgets and services. But this doesn’t mean they understand everything about the online world. The American academic Danah Boyd1 has found that many teenagers don’t understand why searching on Google brings up some information before other information – or that what comes first depends on who is doing the searching.

When we call young people digital natives, Danah Boyd says, we are lumping all young people together, saying they’ve all mastered the digital world and feel confident. In reality, many teens feel the online world is unfamiliar and uncertain and don’t always know how to control the information that’s coming and going to and from them. They certainly don’t always know how to interpret it.

Rather than assuming that young people are digital natives, she argues, we should be looking to increase their wisdom in using digital tools - making sure they understand the commercial reasons why some things happen on the internet, for example; why organisations are collecting their data - and that their personal information is valuable.

The more technically sophisticated a young person’s friends are, the more likely they are to develop tech skills themselves. Boyd recommends that parents should to their best to:

  • help children to understand what's going on online (choosing tools that are transparent)
  • help children to use the tools we already have wisely.