What Is a Digital Native?

Digital native is a term coined by Marc Prensky in 2001 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 developed countries are considered to be digital natives, as they mainly communicate and learn via computers, social networking services, and texting.

The opposites of digital natives are digital immigrants (people who have had to adapt to the new language of technology) and digital refugees (people whose jobs, livelihoods, and lives have been disrupted by the rapid advance of information technology, automation, and artificial intelligence).

Key Takeaways

  • Digital natives are people who have grown up under the ubiquitous influence of the internet and other modern information technologies.
  • Digital natives think, learn, and understand the world around them differently from people who have not been as subjected to modern technology.
  • Digital natives have become the primary focus of modern marketing techniques and strategies.


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, while 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 markets, children in less affluent areas are less exposed to technology than their counterparts in the G-7, for example.

It is also important to note that Prensky's original paper was a speculative essay rather than an empirical science article. However, substantial research evidence has since been developed that supports his claims. Scientists have demonstrated how frequent or early exposure to modern information technology can lead to cognitive and functional changes to the human brain.

This research shows that those who have all their lives been exposed to the influence of modern information technologies do indeed think, learn, and understand the world differently than previous generations. Based on his own experience in working with students and educators, Prensky later extended his digital native metaphor into a concept he calls "digital wisdom" for educational reform.

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 have set out to capture the attention of digital natives, though often these attempts have amounted to 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.