Bringing ideas to life

Digital nativism and online youth: separating fact from fiction

Published in Self and Identity by Huw Davies on May 9, 2013


I’m new to blogging. Mainly because I don’t have a readership that justifies the time, I’ve been reluctant to blog. However, I realise that, unshackled from the constraints of academic writing blogging could be a liberating experience.

I’ll begin by unpacking the concept of the Digital Native; the way it’s deployed in public debate and academia’s frustration with the term’s persistent axiomatic reproduction. 

In 2001 Marc Prensky, who describes himself on his website ( as a “Visionary”, suggested there is a whole generation of users in possession of a homogeneous set of skills and competencies. He called these people Digital Natives (Prensky, 2001). Other volume selling authors such as Don Tapscott, in offering a similar analysis, referred to them as the Net Generation (Tapscott, 2009). However, it’s Prensky’s term that has become the most totemic.

Prensky claimed people born into the digital world are naturalised inhabitants. This implies there is something here that cannot be learnt or acquired. Naturalisation is said to produce a mind-set in the Digital Native; a level of familiarity with technology or ‘savvy’ that is irreducible. Conversely, if you are a Digital Native the pre-digital world is profoundly ‘Other’; this is where, according to Prensky, “Digital Immigrants” come from. Digital Immigrants can immerse themselves in the digital culture but Prensky claims they will never be at home.

This is patent nonsense, and unworthy of in-depth analysis. Suffice to say some ‘older’ people born before say 1990 have been deeply immersed in technology for years and epitomise anyone’s definition of digital literacy. Simultaneously, some young people have limited access to technology. Equally, young people have wildly different levels of informal and formal technical education and some only use a narrow range of applications. For example, it doesn’t make sense to put someone who only ever plays Xbox with someone who codes their own apps into the same category; it makes as much sense to say that people born after 1936 when the BBC first began broadcasting are more comfortable with using a TV remote and are more ‘TV savvy’. 

(c) Charlotta Wasteson

Today, Google responds to the term “digital natives” with over 1.75 million hits; evidence in the previous decade that the Digital Native has entered our lexicon. Despite this, it is unclear, particularly in the UK, whether it has had any impact beyond its use in discourse. There is a possibility the term has had an influence on adult constructions of youth, young people’s self-perception and even some policy decisions, however there is little empirical data to support this.

I am sure the concept of the Digital Native has influenced attitudes and this is difficult to demonstrate empirically; however I believe social scientific interventions should be based on strong evidence and in this case the evidence suggesting the Digital Native has had an impact is weak.  

Nevertheless, the suggestion that there is a distinct generation defined by its skill with technology has recently exercised many academics in the UK. For example, a panel held at the London School of Economics and Political Science asked, “‘Digital Natives’: a myth?” (Livingstone, Buckingham, & Davies, 2009). Similarly, Selwyn enquired was the “Digital Native a myth or reality?” (Selwyn, 2009),  Helsper & Eynon 2010 asked,  “Digital Native – where’s the evidence?”, and Jones et al. (2010) posed the question “Net generation or Digital Natives: is there a distinct new generation entering university?”.

I think, given this reaction in academia to the Digital Native, it is reasonable to expect the concept has shaped education policy but the national curriculum in ICT, last updated in 2007 before the Digital Native came under sustained criticism, makes no assumptions about presupposed skills.  In fact,  it requires “critical evaluation – a recognising that information must not be taken at face value, but must be analysed and evaluated to take account of its purpose, author, currency and context” (QCA, 2007). There is dissonance between the reaction to the Digital Native and its impact on anything that matters. The suggestion is that policy debate and policy documents are permeated with references to the Digital Native.  Considering the academic reaction, it is reasonable to   expect the Digital Native paradigm to have been discussed widely in government. However, entering this into the Google site: “” and “digital native” produces only one speech by Ed Vaizy Minister for Culture, Communications & the Creative Industries in 2011


(c) Marco Derksen

The Digital Native’s uncritical acceptance and more importantly its impact on, for example, policy has not been demonstrated by these authors who problematise it. The discourse that circulates the Digital Native is often referred to as “popular rhetoric” (Hargittai 2010, p93 ) but only Selwyn attempts to define it: 

In developing a critical analysis of the “digital native” literature, we are not referring solely to Prensky’s work, but also the large body of writing that has followed subsequently on the same theme. In particular our analysis includes work by Tapscott, Palfrey and Gasser, as well as recent writing on Web 2.0 from Keen and Leadbetter (Selwyn 2009, p376).

And it is only Jones in the UK who demonstrates its adoption in forums of potential influence such as conferences. He does so by citing a speech by the Vice Chancellor of the Open University (UK) in 2008 within which she asked ‘‘Is education 1.0 ready for Web 2.0 students?” (Jones et al., 2010, p722).

In Australia, Bennett et al. argue that the Digital Native’s axiomatic adoption has created the academic equivalent of a ‘moral panic’ that restricts critical and rational debate. However, the only evidence they cite for this is the fact it has been referenced, often uncritically, in five publications including New Library World and Nursing Education Perspectives (Bennett et al., 2008, p777).

The Digital Native is unsupported by evidence and is therefore a narrative construction. Its popularity online is quantifiable by for example using Google Trends, however, because its material effects in society have not been accurately assessed, what’s more interesting for me is academia’s reaction to the concept and how it becomes a window into how the truth, in the Foucauldian sense, is produced as academia struggles for ascendency over Prensky’s popular explanation of reality.  The literary critic Harold Bloom judges texts by his theory of the “anxiety of influence” (Bloom 1994); by this measure, the reaction to its content in academia, Prensky’s book is a modern classic – a pseudoscientific one that demands to be put in its rightful place – Huw Davies

Part two of this argument to follow shortly…

unlinked references:

Bennett, Maton, & Kervin. (2008). The “digital natives” debate: A critical review of the evidence. British Journal of Educational Technology, 39(5), 775–786. doi:10.1111/j.1467-8535.2007.00793.x

Hargittai. (2010). Digital Na(t)ives? Variation in Internet Skills and Uses among Members of the “Net Generation”. Sociological Inquiry, 80(1), 92–113. doi:10.1111/j.1475-682X.2009.00317.x

Helsper, E., & Eynon, R. (2010). Digital natives: where is the evidence? British Educational Research Journal, 36(3), 503–520. doi:10.1080/01411920902989227

Jones, C., Ramanau, R., Cross, S., & Healing, G. (2010). Net generation or Digital Natives: Is there a distinct new generation entering university? Computers & Education, 54(3), 722–732. doi:10.1016/j.compedu.2009.09.022

Livingstone, S., Buckingham, D., & Davies, C. (2009). “ Digital natives”: a myth? Technology (p. 17). Retrieved from

QCA. (2007). ICT Programme of study for key stage 3 and attainment target. Retrieved from

Selwyn, N. (2009). The digital native – myth and reality. Aslib Proceedings: New Information Perspectives, 61(4), 364–379. doi:10.1108/00012530910973776


Huw DaviesI’m a second year Web Science PhD student at the University of Southampton. My thesis is interdisciplinary so I have two supervisors Professor Susan Halford and Dr Nick Gibbins. I am investigating the implications for young people and their (lifelong) education of the democratisation of knowledge on the Web. I am arguing existing research is limited by its positivist methods and its reliance on age as explanation of youth’s vulnerability to misinformation. Age is not self-evident and timeless but a moral classification – a product of over a century and half of social upheaval and productive power in society. I am therefore using a mixture of qualitative and digital quantitative methods to prove that young people’s attitudes to information on the Web is shaped by their social environment or what Bourdieu described as field. @huwcdavies
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  1. Bob Maclean

    I am a student history teacher in Glasgow, and I must say I find the concept of a “digital native” hard to accept as well, given I was born in 1989 and yet I am less enthusiastic about technology than many teaching colleagues who are many years my senior!

    I have also seen pupils who have very limited access to technology, reducing the likelihood of them having some seemingly inherent ability to use technology effortlessly and effectively.

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