What is a 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 era of ubiquitous technology, including computers and the internet. 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. Many teenagers and children in the first world 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.

Understanding Digital Natives

The idea of “digital native” came from an article explaining Prensky's opinion on why today’s teachers are having trouble teaching students. Prensky argued 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 called for a change in the way children are taught so that they may learn in a “language” they understand. It is worth noting that not all children born today are digital natives. Although cheaper mobile technology is making rapid inroads into developing and emerging nations, children in less affluent areas are less exposed to technology than their counterparts in the G8, for example.

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.

Digital Natives in the Business World

The idea of digital natives became popular among educators and parents, whose children fell within Prensky's definition of a digital native. In the context of business, the digital native was embraced as a new and potentially lucrative way to segment consumers for the purpose of marketing. Many strategies were proposed to capture the attention of digital natives, some of which were basic marketing with a few more buzzwords thrown in.

It was the focus on digital natives that encouraged many brands to go with social media as a main marketing platform and to gamify promotions. Other marketing tips for reaching the digital natives included digging into the ad data for insights, appealing to aspirational desires, and a host of other basic ideas that apply to marketing to anyone regardless of their childhood exposure to technology. In recent years, the millennial categorization has overtaken the usage of digital native as a marketing segment, but many of the characteristics and techniques remain the same.