Digital native? There’s no such thing
It's a myth that children are better at IT than adults.
Last Thursday, Ofcom, the UK regulator that governs broadcasting, telecommunications and the postal service, grabbed headlines with a new report on IT usage in Britain. The Telegraph said that the report clearly showed that most Britons were ‘past their technological peak’ by 16. ‘Six-year-olds’, it added, ‘have the same level of understanding of modern technology, such as mobile phones and tablets, as 45-year-olds’. The Guardian also chortled over children’s supposed IT superiority. The report was ‘authoritative’, the newspaper said, noting: ‘The advent of broadband in the year 2000 has created a generation of digital natives, the communication watchdog Ofcom says in its annual study of British consumers.’
In truth, the report said nothing of the sort. Surveying 800 children and 2,000 adults, it found that slightly more children claimed to have a better knowledge of smartphone and tablet apps than adults: 54 per cent of children aged six to 15 claimed to know about these apps, compared with 47 per cent of adults. Given the propensity of children to know everything about everything, and for telling the truth, it’s remarkable that the difference wasn’t bigger.
Nor did Ofcom say that broadband telecommunications has created a generation of ‘digital natives’. In its 429-page report on the communications market in Britain, there is not a single mention of the phrase.
So what did Ofcom really say? An Ofcom press release trumpeted: ‘A “millennium generation” of 14- and 15-year-olds are [sic] the most technology-savvy in the UK.’ Significantly, the Ofcom release suggested that ‘techie teens’ are now ‘shaping’ the UK communications market.
Let’s deal with this morass of hype point by point.
What are digital natives?
Do kids have ‘the same level of understanding of modern technology’ as grown-ups? Let’s leave aside, for the moment, the all-too-familiar reduction of ‘modern technology’ to IT – in this case, to apps on mobile phones and tablets – is Ofcom genuinely suggesting that a child aged six really understands how an app is thought about, built, invested in, made to work, made compatible with different platforms, distributed, priced and upgraded?
You might reply that the phases in the development of an app are not important, because it’s what the app does that’s key, and that’s what six-year-olds are so good at understanding. But that, too, would be wrong. It is an old canard in the IT world that consumers don’t need to know what goes on ‘under the bonnet’. If an application keeps crashing, not many children will know how to fix it – though quite a few adults will.
Next up is the question of whether the advent of broadband did indeed create a generation of digital natives. First of all, this idea is an all-too-familiar example of vapid technological determinism in IT. It is ridiculous to suggest that broadband – the transmission of electrons at high bandwidths – can ‘create’ a social stratum. What this idea suggests is that, because of IT, it is only young people who can hope to be modern and well-informed about the world. Indulging the alleged ‘knowledge’ of youthful users of IT, this idea is like the admiring perspective of a Western anthropologist gawping at tribesmen up the Limpopo River. A digital native? How very exotic!
The phrase ‘digital native’ was coined back in 2001 by the US educationalist Marc Prensky. Prensky argued that a really big discontinuity had taken place – a ‘singularity’ or ‘an event which changes things so fundamentally that there is absolutely no going back’. The singularity? It was ‘the arrival and rapid dissemination of digital technology in the last decades of the twentieth century’.
From kindergarten to university, Prensky said, IT had made students think and process information in a fundamentally different way from their predecessors, so that ‘students today are all “native speakers” of the digital language of computers, video games and the internet’. Prensky argued that because of the explosion of IT students’ brains were ‘almost certainly physiologically different’ (emphasis in the original). In line with this, Prensky said that we needed ‘to invent computer games to do the job [of education], even for the most serious content. After all, it’s an idiom with which most of them are totally familiar.’
In British schools and colleges, Tony Blair’s New Labour government swiftly took up Prensky’s love for IT as an ‘idiom’ for teaching. In schools, New Labour poured money into ICT, showing great enthusiasm for the digital-natives narrative. Yet well beyond the world of education, Prensky’s idea of digital natives had a deeper impact.
The significance of the digital-natives narrative
By 2005, even the press baron Rupert Murdoch was endorsing the idea of digital natives. Yet this idea, so uncritically recycled by the Guardian and everyone who affects to be hip in IT, simply represents the IT version of what Frank Furedi has called ‘the sacralisation of childhood’ (1). Today’s exaggeration of the youth’s skills in IT, the putting of those skills on a pedestal, are part of the West’s turn to idolising children, disparaging adults and trying to get adults to behave in a youthful if not infantile manner. Indeed, IT itself has performed a major role in diffusing the idea that adults should indulge in an idea of ‘play’ around IT.
The final myth that needs to be laid to rest in all of this is the idea that children’s conduct with IT is ‘shaping’ the communications market. Of course, gullible forecasters in IT will always instruct senior management that interfaces and devices, for instance, should be more visual, more hip and more youthful in appearance. Such seers also want firms to have a policy of allowing youthful employees to ‘bring your own device’ (BYOD) to work. But this worshipping of youth by the IT community – entirely of a piece with the worship of youth going on in education – is not quite what it seems. It isn’t the behaviour or the market power of youth that shapes IT, so much as the absence of grown-up strategies and innovations in the IT milieu.
Young people only have a market power in IT because adults buy products for them – and then rave about what the youth can do with the stuff. It isn’t the youth that shapes the communications market, but rather companies and parents who, easily and impulsively, adopt the agenda of trying to appeal to the adolescent in all of us. Icons and displays may fascinate, but the idea that touching or swiping a mobile phone or a tablet amounts to ‘understanding’ modern technology, still less grasping knowledge in general, shows how glib commentary and practice in IT has become.
The fact is that, with a genuinely useful app like Google, adults are usually able to get much better results than children. Through years of experience and reading, adults know what to look for more than children do. The Google searches adults perform are generally more productive than those performed by children. Adult IT tasks, especially in the adult world of work, are more demanding than those that children undertake.
Interestingly, Ofcom’s research found that a lot of people claimed never to have heard of genuinely sophisticated pieces of technology, such as 3D printers and driverless cars. But this admission was made more by children than by adults. Now that’s a research result that rings true.
James Woudhuysen is editor of Big Potatoes: the London Manifesto for Innovation. Read his blog here.
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