What exactly makes someone a 'digital native'? A comprehensive guide (2024)

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It's not as clear cut as it seems.

ByGabriela Barkhoon

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What exactly makes someone a 'digital native'? A comprehensive guide (1)

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Nearly everyone assumes the modern teen is internet obsessed.

Sure, 92% of teenagers report going online daily — including 24% who say they go online “almost constantly” — according to Pew Research data. But young millennials’ addiction to all things web doesn’t necessarily mean they’re a digital native. Nor is someone who just so happened to grow up in the Internet age.

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So what exactly makes someone a “digital native”?

Marc Prensky, known for inventing and popularizing the terms “digital native” and “digital immigrant”, told Mashable the following: “The most important thing to realize is that this is a metaphor. It’s not a distinction or a brand, it’s extremely fluid.”

“Digital immigrants are people who grew up in one digital culture and moved into another,” Prensky explained. “Digital natives are people who grew up in one culture. They don’t have two cultures to compare.”

More than one meaning

Although Prensky explained the term was coined as a term to encompass the emerging digital native landscape in 2001, it has since evolved. According to Lee Rainie of Pew Research Center, its meaning is now hotly debated.

“Many notions and definitions have popped up in a number of places, and they’re often fairly contested,” said Rainie, the center’s Director of Internet, Science and Technology. “A native is someone who is totally aware and understands technology.”

“A native is someone who is totally aware and understands technology.”

Rainie goes on to explain that many scholars and analysts believe even though digital natives are good at using platforms and social media, they don't necessarily always know how to code or how these apps work.

Perhaps the most fascinating aspect of the concept “digital natives vs. immigrants” is the fact that it mostly has to do with the background and surroundings -- not so much age of the person in question. Rainie, whose team has been tracking digital patterns for the past 16 years, says the “native vs. immigrant” divide essentially comes down to desktop compared to mobile-based usage.

“You can see how people who grew up in the age of wired computers differ from those who grew up with mobile technology,” she said.

What exactly makes someone a 'digital native'? A comprehensive guide (2)

Today’s youth is more likely to be digitally native than their parents or grandparents. This comes into play with things like using trendy social platforms and services, such as Snapchat, as opposed to Facebook (the traditional social platform) or email.

“You can see the differences inside families, too — even four or five-year age differences result in varying experiences with digital media,” Rainie said.

The evolution

Digital natives may not be necessarily tech savvy, but their sense of knowledge... both digitally and culturally sets them up to be natives.

These variances have effects on the way they consume media. In the past couple of decades, historical events such as the Columbine high school shooting, the attacks on Sept. 11, the influence of the Bush Administration and the 2008 Presidential elections have all been documented differently according to the preferred media of their day, Rainie explains. Whereas the 9/11 attacks and Bush presidency were mainly documented through cable television and emerging online coverage, the historic 2008 Election ushered in an unprecedented era of digital coverage of politics, namely via social media.

Today, however, digital natives may not be necessarily tech savvy, but their sense of knowledge of what’s going on both digitally and culturally is what sets them up to be natives.

More often than not, teens have a self awareness of the privilege they have of growing up in an all-digital era. For 18-year-old Isabel Radice, acknowledging her access to the Internet for most of her life is something she doesn’t take lightly.

“I constantly talk about how much I love being born in the ‘Internet generation’ because it led me to meet people through online platforms — especially Tumblr and Twitter — who had similar interests,” she said. “From about the age of 14, I was able to connect with people from all over the world.”

What exactly makes someone a 'digital native'? A comprehensive guide (3)

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Another Pew Research study shows 57% of teens have met a new friend online, while social media and online gameplay are the two top ways to meet friends digitally.

It’s also ushered in different career paths: “I love watching talks and reading articles online about Facebook’s algorithms; it helped me realize I have an interest in programming and coding,” Radice says.

But overall, the online world is how digital natives form a good portion of their identity.

“I use Pinterest and read lot of beauty and music blogs,” Rachel Jefferson, 19, said. “I also discover the majority of bands I listen to through the internet, rather than by word of mouth.”

When it comes to this type of cultural grouping, it’s no secret embracing digital platforms has been popularized by younger demographics. Pew data suggests “those ages 18 to 29 have always been the most likely users of social media by a considerable margin.”

The takeaway

Overall, just because you grew up with the Internet, doesn’t mean you are a digital native.

To fully consider someone a digital native points to the fact that “these people are deeply immersed into this world,” Rainie explains. “They see everything such as the benefits — the love, emotional side — and at the same time, they see the cyberbullying and harassments.”

At the end of the day, a digital native is someone who gets it, for all the good and bad that it offers.

Prensky stresses “millennials should have a responsible sense of how empowered they are. Digital natives are can do things that older generations could just never do.”

Have something to add to this story? Share it in the comments.

What exactly makes someone a 'digital native'? A comprehensive guide (4)

Haile Owusu

Haile Owusu is Chief Data Scientist at Mashable where his main responsibility is the development and refinement of the company's proprietary Velocity technology, which predicts and tracks the viral life-cycle of digital media content.Prior to joining Mashable Haile led all research efforts for SocialFlow, one of the leading social media optimization platforms for leading brands and publishers. Haile specializes in statistical learning as applied to predictive analytics and has a background in theoretical physics, including a Ph.D from Rutgers University, a Masters of Science from King's College, University of London and a B.A. from Yale University.

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I'm an expert in digital culture, technology, and the concept of digital natives, having delved deeply into the evolution of digital habits, generational differences in internet usage, and the implications of being labeled a "digital native." My extensive knowledge in this field enables me to analyze and provide insights into the article titled "It's not as clear cut as it seems" by Gabriela Barkho.

The article discusses the widely held assumption that modern teens are internet-obsessed and explores the concept of "digital natives" coined by Marc Prensky. Prensky's distinction between "digital natives" and "digital immigrants" is crucial to understanding the generational gap in digital proficiency. As the article highlights, a digital native is someone who grew up in the digital era, while a digital immigrant is an individual who transitioned into the digital age.

Lee Rainie of Pew Research Center adds a nuanced perspective, emphasizing that being a digital native goes beyond age and involves a deep understanding and awareness of technology. The article explores the ongoing debate over the meaning of "digital natives" and how it has evolved over time. Rainie suggests that the digital native-immigrant divide is more about the transition from desktop to mobile-based usage than age itself.

The article also touches on how the digital landscape has shaped the way different generations consume media, with digital natives having a unique perspective on historical events documented through various media forms. It emphasizes the impact of the internet on identity formation, social interactions, and even career choices for digital natives.

Furthermore, the piece discusses the role of social media platforms, such as Snapchat and Facebook, in shaping the digital experiences of today's youth. It underscores the idea that being a digital native is not solely about being tech-savvy but also about having a profound cultural and digital awareness.

In conclusion, the article challenges the simplistic notion that growing up with the internet automatically makes someone a digital native. It emphasizes the need for a deeper understanding of technology and its cultural implications to truly embody the essence of being a digital native.

What exactly makes someone a 'digital native'? A comprehensive guide (2024)

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