DEFINITION of Digital Native

Digital native is a term coined by Mark Prensky in 2001 used to describe the generation of people who grew up in the digital age. Digital natives are comfortable with technology and computers at an early age and consider technology to be an integral and necessary part of their lives. Teenagers and children today are generally considered to be digital natives as they mainly communicate and learn via computers, SNS and texting. The opposite of digital natives is digital immigrants – people who have had to adapt to the new language of technology.

BREAKING DOWN Digital Native

The idea of “digital native” came from an article explaining why today’s teachers are having trouble teaching students. Prensky argues that young people today are speaking a digital language whereas teachers are speaking an old accented language (their accent being their reluctance to adopt new technology). He calls for a change in the way children are taught so that they may learn in a “language” they understand.

Controversy over Digital Native Term

However, this concept is controversial. Prensky's call for change assumes that all children view technology and digital life as an extension of themselves. Those who challenge the idea of “digital natives” maintain that the young people’s comfort with technology is taught and that children in low socio-economic standing or who lack an interest in learning, could be left behind in the digital age. For instance, those on the disadvantaged side of the digital divide may lack access to technology. In its application, the concept of the digital native gives preference to those who grow up with technology as having a special status, ignoring the significant difference between familiarity and creative application.

Prensky did not strictly define the digital native in his 2001 article, but it was later, arbitrarily, applied to children born after 1980, because computer bulletin board systems and Usenet were already in use at the time. Those closer to the cutoff are sometimes called digital intermediates, which means they started using digital technology in their early teens and thus are closer to digital natives in terms of their understanding and abilities.

The idea became popular among educators and parents, whose children fell within Prensky's definition of a digital native, and has since been embraced as an effective marketing tool. It is important to note that Prensky's original paper was not a scientific one, and that no empirical data exists to support his claims. He has since abandoned his digital native metaphor in favor of digital wisdom.