The Digital Native- Myth and Reality

Reading notes from ‘The Digital Native- Myth and Reality’ by Neil Selywn

The idea of young people being expert computer users has been instrumental in shaping the public’s expectations and fears of technology. Stories about digital technology reflect earlier representations of children and analogue media such film, radio television and magazines.

Children and ‘childhood’ have been long seen as a way to conceptualise the past, present and future aspects of societal change. The role of the child has also been prominent in debates over societal role of new digital technologies such as personalised, computerized portable devices, web 2.0 and social “social software”

Marc Prensky describes the generation of young people born since the 1980s as digital natives because he perceived innate confidence in using new technology such as the internet and video games. He argued that technology was essential to these young people’s existence as opposed to just being part of their everyday lives. He depicted young peoplle as being “surrounded” and “immersed” by these new technologies in ways that older generations were not. In addition to this he laso argues that because of the immersion and dependence enclosed in the lifestyles of upcoming generations, which he calls the i-kids, they remain plugged into their personalised portable devices such as mobile phones, mp3 players and hand held video games consoles. These understandings of the distinctly different technological landscape that young people are seen to inhabit have proved to be highly influential within popular and political discourse, as well as in some scientific discussion.

According to research by Godding studies suggest that young people’s abilities to access digital technologies remain patterned strongly along lines of socio‐economic status and social class, as well as gender and geography. There is also evidence that  some social groups of young people are “digitally excluded” as older generations, but in more subtle ways and less apparent to adult commentators. Recent studies across Europe and North America show that levels of computer and internet use are lower amongst rural youth, female youth and those from families with low levels of parental education. Aside from inequalities in access and engagement, there is g evidence that many young people’s actual uses of digital technologies remain rather more limited in scope than the digital native rhetoric would suggest.  Surveys by Crook and Harrison, of adolescents’ technology use, show a predominance of game playing, text messaging and retrieval of online content. Livingstone (2009) suggests that in reality many young people’s engagement with technology is often far more passive, solitary, sporadic and unspectacular, be it at home or in school. Young people’s use of the internet can be described most accurately as involving the passive consumption of knowledge rather than the active creation of content.

Studies by Lohnes et al suggest that children and young people do not necessarily expect or even want to use technology in institutional settings such as schools or libraries in the same manner as they do at home, therefore young people should be seen as rather more discerning in their desire to use and not use digital technologies in all aspects of their lives than the digital native rhetoric may suggest.

In the article the writer concludes that whilst digital technologies are associated with significant changes in the lives of young people and adults, there is little reason to assume that serious and irrevocable disconnections are somehow resulting between young people and society. They quote Mimi Ito et al who said we should be “wary of claims that a digital generation is overthrowing culture and knowledge as we know it and that its members are engaging in new media in ways radically different from those of older generations”


Selwyn, N. 2009, “The digital native – myth and reality”, Aslib Proceedings: New Information Perspectives, vol. 61, no. 4, pp. 364-379.


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