Digital natives - fairies of media literacy

  • Awareness
  • 29/12/2017
  • Finnish Safer Internet Centre

We often hear the terms "digital natives" or "digital immigrants" when talking about young people online, but is it correct to assume that either of these concepts actually exist? Here, the Finnish National Audiovisual Institute, part of the Finnish Safer Internet Centre (SIC), debates the issue and reflects on the importance of media literacy in determining context.

I was recently confronted by someone with a dictionary description about "digital immigrants", stating that I should not argue with a well-known dictionary. This followed from a short discussion about the digital native myth. The example of using dictionary definitions of a word or an expression (in this case "digital migrant") is a marvellous example of the many reasons why we need to enhance media literacy. Dictionaries describe the meaning of words, but they do not describe the true world or facts. Media education would teach that one needs to evaluate the given descriptions, contextualise them and, in this case, understand that dictionary definitions are not necessarily knowledge-based facts, based on research or even on common and shared understanding. It is a different thing to know what the exact term "digital native" or "digital immigrant" means, and completely another thing to understand that they may not be true. We can take another example from the Oxford English Dictionary: fairy. OED gives several descriptions, and the following is one of them:

fairy, n. and adj.
a. One of a class of supernatural beings having human form, to whom are traditionally attributed magical powers and who are thought to interfere in human affairs (with either good or evil intent). In later use usually: spec. such a being having the form of a tiny, delicate, and beautiful girl or young woman, usually with insect-like wings. Cf. fay n.2, elf n.1

As is the case with fairies, we do not have any scientific proof of digital natives or digital immigrants existing. The origin of the so called "Digital Native Myth" is in two polemic articles by Marc Prensky (2001a & 2001b). However, numerous studies have proved the core principle wrong. The literature list below shows only some refereed, peer-reviewed scientific articles about studies where no proof has been found about the existence of either digital natives or digital immigrants. As Selwyn (2009) points out:

"The findings show that young people's engagements with digital technologies are varied and often unspectacular - in stark contrast to popular portrayals of the digital native. As such, the paper highlights a misplaced technological and biological determinism that underpins current portrayals of children, young people and digital technology."

It is interesting that these kinds of dichotomies (digital natives vs. digital immigrants) are quickly spread and widely used in the rhetorical speeches of politicians. I don't mind if someone believes in fairies. However, these kinds of beliefs become dangerous if they are used as the basis for decision making or in policy planning.

Here, in the Finnish Safer Internet Centre, we are actively busting these kinds of myths through reflective conceptual discussions in our team, by getting pro-actively involved in dialogue if such misunderstandings emerge, and by raising awareness through social media, blogs and in training events.

Find out more about the work of the Finnish Safer Internet Centre (SIC), including its awareness raising, helpline, hotline and youth participation services.

Some literature for further reading:

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. doi:10.1111/j.1467-8535.2007.00793.x
Czerniewicz, L. (2013). The habitus of digital "strangers" in higher education. British Journal of Educational Technology, 44(1), 44.
Helsper, E. J., & Eynon, R. (2010). Digital natives: Where is the evidence? British Educational Research Journal, 36(3), 503-520. doi:10.1080/01411920902989227
Marcelo Gabriel. (2014). The Y generation myth: Evidences based on the causality relations among age, diffusion and adoption of technology of college students of Sao Paulo state. Future Studies Research Journal: Trends and Strategies, 6(1), 32-52.
Margaryan, A. (2011). Are digital natives a myth or reality? university students' use of digital technologies.(report). Computers & Education, 56(2), 429.
Nelson, M. E. (2012). Deconstructing digital natives: Young people, technology, and the new literacies. Language, Learning & Technology, 16(3), 35.
Prensky, M. (2001a). Digital natives, digital immigrants part 1. On the Horizon, 9(5), 1-6. doi:10.1108/10748120110424816
Prensky, M. (2001b). Digital natives, digital immigrants part 1. On the Horizon, 9(5), 1-6. doi:10.1108/10748120110424816
Prensky, M. (2001c). Digital natives, digital immigrants part 2: Do they really think differently? On the Horizon, 9(6), 1-6. doi:10.1108/10748120110424843
Selwyn, N. (2009). The digital native – myth and reality. Ap, 61(4), 364-379. doi:10.1108/00012530910973776
Smith, J. (2013). Beneath the digital native myth. Journal of Sociology, 49(1), 97-118.
Wilson, J. (2012). Deconstructing digital natives: Young people, technology, and the new literacies


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  • Awareness
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  • Finnish Safer Internet Centre

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