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Childhood in the digital age
Childhood in the digital age

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1.2.1 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 ‘millenials’, 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).

There is a distinction between ‘digital natives’, who are those generally born after the 1980s 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 widely held theory of neuroplasticity. This means that our brains are highly flexible and subject to change throughout life. The different neural connections in the brain change and evolve throughout childhood in response to the environment. It is claimed that young children’s brains now are developing differently to the way adults’ brains have developed, as children are growing up surrounded by new technologies. This topic of neuroplasticity is something that you will revisit in Week 3 of the course when we look at cognitive and biological changes during childhood.

The digital natives debate is not simply about this generational divide but also about the need for education to change in order to meet our children’s expectations.

Here is a taster 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 1.3

What is your opinion? Should we meet our children where they are? Think about your answer.