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Childhood in the digital age
Childhood in the digital age

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2.1 Introducing ‘digital natives’

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Figure 5 Digital natives and digital immigrants.

The idea of a generational divide between children and adults has been a popular topic among psychologists and sociologists. This has resulted in the use of labels such as the ‘digital native’, the ‘net generation’, the ‘Google generation’ or the ‘app generation’, each of which highlights the importance of new technologies in defining the lives of young people.

The most contentious term is the ‘digital native’ (Palfrey and Gasser, 2013). The term first appeared in an article by educational writer Marc Prensky (2001) to describe those children who spend much of their lives ‘online’, constantly ‘switched on’. It represents ‘native speakers’ who are ‘fluent in the digital language of computers, video games and the Internet’ (Prensky, 2005, p. 8).

Prensky distinguishes between ‘digital natives’, who are those generally born after the 1980s in the more industrialised and ‘connected’ nations and are technologically adept and comfortable in a world of technology, and ‘digital immigrants’, who are generally born before the 1980s and are fearful or less confident in using technology.

To justify his claims Prensky draws on the concept of neuroplasticity. This means that our brains are highly flexible, particularly during childhood, and continue to be subject to change throughout life. The massive neural inter-connectivity in the brain changes and evolves throughout childhood in response to the environment and the child’s actions. It is claimed by some that young children’s brains now are developing differently to the way that today’s adults’ brains developed, as children are now growing up surrounded by new technologies. This topic of neuroplasticity is something that you will revisit in Week 3 of the course when you look at cognitive and biological changes during childhood.

The digital natives debate is not simply about this generational divide but also about where there is a need for education to change in order to meet our children’s expectations and to maximise benefits and minimise harms of new technologies.

Here are tasters of some of the claims that have been put forward:

There is growing appreciation that the old approach [of didactic teaching] is ill-suited to the intellectual, social, motivational, and emotional needs of the new generation.

(Tapscott, 1998, p. 131)

Our students have changed radically. Today’s students are no longer the people our educational system was designed to teach.

(Prensky, 2001, p. 1)

Activity 3

What is your opinion? Should parents, education and other services adapt to children’s eagerness to embrace new technologies? Think about your answer and make notes of your views.