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Childhood in the digital age
Childhood in the digital age

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2.3 Digital natives: fact or fiction?

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Figure 6 If the idea of ‘digital natives’ is correct, what are the implications?

Although the concept of the digital native still remains popular, it has given rise to strong criticism and debate. Many psychologists now question the validity of this generational interpretation of the digital divide. Helsper and Eynon in their 2010 review article quite rightly ask the question ‘Digital natives: where is the evidence?’.

Many have argued that Marc Prensky’s provocative article of 2001 represents mere opinion and speculation and lacks any clear scientific evidence to justify his claims. Sue Bennett (2008) argues that the actual situation is far from clear, being neither empirically nor theoretically informed. She even goes as far as to say that the debate itself could be described as primarily an academic form of the ‘moral panic’.

The key difficulty with using the digital natives term to describe a whole generation is that it assumes that all children are equally skilled with technology, even though there are undoubtedly significant differences among children across the globe or eve across individual families. While many children might be attracted to screens and perhaps less fearful than adults in using them, it doesn’t mean that all of them are fluent or ‘native’ in doing so.

A question frequently discussed is: ‘if children now do learn in different ways to children in the past, what are the implications for education?’ and ‘Are children now finding traditional schooling increasingly difficult to engage with?’ So far there is little evidence of young children’s serious dissatisfaction or disengagement in education. Making any change to our current educational system on the basis of speculation could potentially have drastic negative consequences for children’s learning.

Despite this, Prensky’s original claim of a divide between the old and the young continues to be perpetuated even in 2020. Try entering the term ‘digital native’ into an internet search engine and see how many hits you find!

Next you will begin to explore how the hopes and dreams often associated with new technologies can be balanced against the perceived risks and vulnerabilities.

You might like to read an extract from S. Bennett et al., 2008 [Tip: hold Ctrl and click a link to open it in a new tab. (Hide tip)]   which looks further at this subject.

Activity 4

Thinking about what you have covered in the last few sections, try to answer the following questions.

  • Are some specific kinds of technology more readily adopted by children than others?
  • How is children’s use of technology different from their non-online activities?
  • Do you think there is a distinction between ‘digital natives’ and ‘digital immigrants’?

Make notes about your answers to each question.