The unofficial psychology blog from Paul Hutchings

Digital Natives: Wrong Label, Harmful Label

Are younger people 'natives' with technology?

Are younger people ‘natives’ with technology?

In 2001 Marc Prensky coined the terms ‘digital natives’ and ‘digital immigrants’ – those who had been born and raised in the digital age in the former group whilst the latter group is made up of the older generations who have learned to deal with technology (in much the same way that an immigrant may move to a country and be proficient in the language and knowledgeable about the customs and culture of the country, but not as much as the natives).

Criticisms of the digital native/digital immigrant theory have been robust to say the least.  Whilst Prensky (2001a) sets out his initial claims here they are extremely light on evidence;  a theory based upon intuitive anecdotal thinking rather than based in empirical fact.  Many have gone further in their attacks, from the direct McKenzie (2007) to evaluation of the evidence (Bayne & Ross, 2007Bennett, Maton & Kervin, 2008).

To test the ‘digital native/digital immigrant’ theory I carried out a study with students which has gone off for review this week.  I wanted to find out if the ‘Net generation’ truly are better than their older counterparts when it comes to using modern technology.  We asked the two groups of students who had been at the university for a few weeks (digital natives v digital immigrants) to self-report their confidence and proficiency on technology in general (computer use, social media, etc.) and their confidence and proficiency at using technologies that they had not used before arriving at university (controlled for through self-report; Virtual Learning Environments, Library Databases, etc.).  Our reasoning was that a ‘digital native’ should feel far more confident and should be far more proficient at using new technologies than ‘digital immigrants’.  After all, the word ‘digital’ is an all-encompassing term;  we aren’t just talking about ‘social-media natives’ or ‘Google-natives’.  If the term ‘digital natives’ is going to fit they should be superior on this task using modern technology to the ‘immigrants’.

Results were interesting – whilst, as predicted, the ‘digital native’ group reported significantly higher levels of confidence and proficiency at using modern technology in general than the ‘immigrant’ group, this effect disappeared when it came to the new technology.  Both groups reported significantly lower levels of confidence and proficiency and there was no significant difference between groups on the new technology.

That is not the sign of a ‘digital native’ – it is the sign of a group of people who have plenty of practice at using certain forms of technology (social media such as Facebook and Twitter; Google; apps) but this practice does not necessarily transfer across to forms of technology that are different.  To put it into context, if we are both brought up in the UK speaking English but you speak better French than I do this doesn’t automatically qualify you as a ‘native’ French speaker;  and if we head off to Germany we’re both going to have problems.

Still to explore, admittedly, is whether speed of learning is impacted upon but, by necessity, I need to wait a little longer to bring that data to bear.  So I’m in disagreement regarding this strong form of ‘digital native’ theory and the data certainly doesn’t support it, and what I currently have argues against it.  OK, that’s the ‘wrong label’ bit dealt with. But why harmful?

First of all, Prensky (2001b) argues that digital natives’ brains are being influenced by the technology, and that this is leading to such a radical altering of their brains that they ‘think differently’ to the older generation.  This is a similar argument to that made by Baroness Susan Greenfield in a number of articles (far easier to link to Dean Burnett’s caricature of her articles than the actual articles themselves, but plenty of links from there) with about the same amount of evidence.  We know that experiences cause changes in the brain – it is the fundamental basis of learning (so simple that it only needs a Wikipedia link to learn more about).  The problem is that it isn’t written that way – it is written in a ‘neuroplasticity is going to mould your brain into something that doesn’t resemble the normal human brain’ type of language which is completely false.  If the human brain could do this we’d have died out or evolved into a myriad of different human species eons ago.

The trouble is, this type of reporting is pervading general knowledge in society.  Which statement do you think is going to have more of an impact upon people?:

1. ‘The data shows that no significant differences exist between older and younger generations when they are given novel tasks to do to test their ability at using technology.’

2. ‘The internet is rewiring children’s brains. Be afraid, be very afraid, things you don’t know much about are going to change people and justify your prejudices about them.’

Before you know it the idea of a ‘digital native’ has entered the general consciousness and hang the evidence.  And from there it leads to all sorts of assumptions that have no evidence base.  The irony is that the really harmful part will impact upon young people – those ‘digital natives’ who… aren’t.  Prensky (2001a) states ‘[O]ur students today are all “native speakers” of the digital language of computers, video games and the Internet’ (p1).  Did you get that?  ALL.  See a 15-year old in front of you?  That, ladies and gentlemen, is a digital native.  Ignore the fact that you know nothing about them or their abilities.  Ignore the fact that 300,000 households in the UK with children in them have no internet access.  Ignore the fact that data (including my own) shows variance across both groups with the lowest scoring on confidence and proficiency showing no significant differences from the lowest scores in the digital immigrants group.  Their classification in this group is based upon one thing and one thing only – the date that they were born.

This causes a problem, particularly in work and in education.  The term ‘digital native’ is value-laden;  it brings with it an expectation of competency and confidence.  No need to train that person on computer use, they’re 18, they must know what they are doing.  No need to train them on the new technology they need to use, they’re a ‘digital native’, they’ll pick it up on their own… these are the types of attitudes that we are breeding, because ‘everyone knows’ that people of that age are ‘digital natives’.  And not to mention that some of our ‘digital immigrants’ are a bit handy with technology… after all, who created all of this technology in the first place?  It wasn’t magicked into existence when our ‘digital natives’ were born.  All in all the ‘digital native’ label is incorrect, harmful to some of those labelled with it, and inaccurate about some of those who are labelled as ‘digital immigrants’.

Finally, although a little anecdotal (hey, may as well fit in with the spirit of the ‘research’) Prensky used the email issue regarding General Petraeus to hammer home his point on CNN:

‘Prensky illustrates his point with former director of the CIA David Petraeus. In November, he was embroiled in a scandal that revealed he had an affair with Paula Broadwell. The FBI uncovered the affair while it investigated e-mails that Broadwell allegedly sent to a Petraeus family friend, Jill Kelley. Prensky labels this naivety by immigrants as “digital stupidity” — by assuming that when people decide to post online or send e-mails, they believe privacy is automatically applicable’.

Well, the Paris Brown issue over the last few days highlights that ‘digital natives’ can be just as bad as ‘digital immigrants’ when it comes to ‘digital stupidity’.  Another nail in the anecdotal evidence-base of the ‘digital native’ coffin.


Bayne, S., & Ross, J. (2007). The ‘digital native’ and ‘digital immigrant’: A dangerous opposition. Available from

Bennett, S., Maton, K., & Kervin, L. (2008). The ‘digital natives’ debate: A critical review of the evidence. British Journal of Educational Technology, 39 (5), 775 – 786.

Burnett, D. (2013). The only Susan Greenfield article you’ll ever need. Available from

Hutchings, P. B. (2013). Paris Brown let herself down, but she had some help from us. Available from

Joy, O. (2012). What does it mean to be a digital native? Available from

McKenzie, J. (2007). Digital nativism digital delusions and digital deprivation. Available from

Office for National Statistics (2012). Internet access – Households and individuals 2012. Available from

Prensky, M. (2001a). Digital natives, digital immigrants. Available from,%20Digital%20Immigrants%20-%20Part1.pdf

Prensky, M (2001b). Digital natives, digital immigrants II: Do they really think differently? Available from,%20Digital%20Immigrants%20-%20Part2.pdf


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1 Response »


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