The absurd and unfounded myth of the digital native

For some time now I’ve been talking about the damage being caused to our societies by the mistaken belief that young people, by definition, are in some way “digital natives”, able to perform magic on computers and smartphones, or somehow more predisposed to use technology efficiently. Today I came across chapter seven of “It’s Complicated”, by danah boyd, which reflects my own views on the matter of young people and technology.

The book, based on a decade of interviews by the author of more than 150 adolescents, has become an best seller, even though boyd has put the book online in pdf format, free of charge. Her thesis, which I have long espoused, is that just because young people spend a lot of time on the internet or using social networks does not mean that they have any real idea of how best to use these tools. As a result, young people’s future possibilities are being seriously limited.

This phenomenon is manifesting itself in Spain, as in most countries, with some interesting results: for some years, use of the popular social network site Tuenti, a closed, non-indexable site (kind of “what happens on Tuenti stays on Tuenti”) has led to some particular use patterns: spending hours glued to a screen using a social network like Tuenti does not imply mastery of any type of technology; in fact it is common to see young people using Twitter, who are unaware of its potential, simply for chatting in plain view. Young people, with few exceptions, have no strategies for using the social networks; my experience from teaching is that in the same classroom one will find a small minority with sound understanding of the technology, with the majority reflecting the same misunderstandings and ignorance as their parents or grandparents.

We are talking about young people incapable of making even a minimally critical assessment of the information they are accessing, who do not understand how search engines work, or who cannot recognize spam or scam that anybody else who spent a couple of hours navigating online would soon grasp.

Simply being born into the internet age does not endow one with special powers. Learning how to use technology properly requires learning and training, regardless of one’s age. The belief that young people are “digital natives” has led many parents and teachers to believe that they did not have to educate them in this regard, as though they were somehow pre-programmed. As a result, instead of being digital natives, these young people are digital orphans, lacking in any model to copy or experiences that might have generated criteria.

The use of parental filters, which I have long campaigned against, means that many parents have instead put the responsibility for oversight of their children’s internet use in a kind of cyber nanny who has simply brushed under a carpet that ceases to exist when they sit down at another computer: supposedly “harmful” material that their parents should have warned them about is suddenly made available, and is all the more attractive for being new.

To paraphrase “Blade Runner”, “I have seen things you people wouldn’t believe”: young people who think that the social networks are just for showing off on, who think that the internet is bad because it is a substitute for real life, who think that all social networks are the same, or who do not know the difference between the Google search box and the address bar. I’m not exaggerating here: I’ve seen this with my own eyes. I have also seen young people who are more skeptical about technology than people more than twice their age.

The result is that the labor market requires the skills and abilities that the vast majority of young people clearly do not possess. The supposed “best-prepared generation in history” is, with a few honorable exceptions that give me some hope for the future of humanity, made up of a bunch of digital ignoramuses who will be unable to deal with the needs of the environment in which they will in all likelihood be working in. For companies, the challenge will be to distinguish between candidates who really know how to make the most of what the internet offers, and those are digitally illiterate, and for whom a smartphone is simply a means of sending a WhatsApp.

If you are a parent, then start getting your head round the idea of preparing your children for a future that requires much more than simply surrounding them with devices, and start thinking about teaching them how to really use them. If you are young, then come to terms with the idea that the rest of society is waking up to the myth of the digital native, and that you are going to have to get your act together to show what you really know. Sadly, the truth is that we are not born with digital skills in our DNA. It was a lie.

(En español, aquí)

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