Observing Digital Natives

Oct 09, 2013 admin

On Monday, Eric Pfanner wrote a New York Times “Bits” blog post: “Young People Are Not as Digitally Native as You Think.” It is about a study by the Georgia Institute of Technology and the International Telecommunication Union that’s intended to be a comprehensive look at “digital natives.”

I was tipped off to the piece when John McDermott of AdAge tweeted that just because his mom checks her email once a day, it doesn’t make her a digital native. John’s tweet made me think of an upcoming MIT Communications Forum event – Born Digital – that’s happening on Thursday, October 10.

I found myself wondering who is defined as having been born digital? (The Georgia Institute of Technology study looks at people between the ages of 15-24.) How should this group be considered? In what context and within what framework should their behaviors be viewed and understood? Do they need to be compared to past generations that came of age in other periods of fundamental change? Which behaviors are altered by fundamental change? How are those changes manifested?

Since change is rarely binary, there has to be a gradation of adoption/acceptance of whatever is driving the change. When does something move from being novel to being normal and how long does that process take? In 2007, for example, seeing someone pull out an iPhone was interesting; now it has become the norm.


The ITU report does an incredible job of quantifying the digital native (you have to dig for it – it’s a separate section pretty deep into the document). It looks at the availability, access and adoption of different elements of digital technology in incredibly granular detail. But it doesn’t address how the availability, access and adoption of technology have altered attitudes or behaviors.

As I was thinking about this, it seemed that someone like John Palfrey (who will be speaking at the MIT Forum) is probably a really good person to discuss the behavioral aspect of the issue.

An educator has the opportunity to observe students of a given age over time. What makes John interesting is that the students at Andover, where he is the head of school, are likely to have had access to the newest technologies as they grew up. What can be learned isn't just that kids have devices, or how they are using those devices (which is quantifiable) but how the adoption of technology has changed the nature of its users.

At this point—at least in my world—technology is pervasive. I can’t imagine living without the Internet or a smartphone or ready access to any content, information or individual at any time. My attitudes and behaviors, though, were cast in the analog age. My children were born in the digital age and I can sense that there are some fundamentally different ways we view the world and our place in it.

Yes, technology is part of the difference but that’s the easy part. What’s harder—and more interesting—is how the different ways technology is used and understood have changed the ways people think and behave. That’s the aspect of the digital native I’m curious about and it’s the one I’m hoping to learn more about tomorrow night at MIT.

Topics: Technology

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