5 Myths About Digital Natives

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I’ve been working on some learning related material for children. Designing for children is a totally different ballgame from the workplace learning we are typically involved in. To put it mildly, designing for children is tough; to design for today’s children even tougher.

The more I look at this demographic they call ‘digital natives’, I find individuals who take the digital world the internet enables for granted. To these individuals, the internet and its data services are just as mundane as electricity and phones were to us in older generations. I wrote about this group of people couple of years back.

As a learning designer, it is very important to understand the context and content of the learning; this is in most cases, directly tied to the learners preferences and situation. I’m listing five myths I encountered about the digital natives, and why they don’t really make sense and deserve to be debunked. Some of these are clearly myths because I’m sure there are more I’m not aware of (thankfully), please comment to add to the list.

1. Digital natives are loners and socially incompetent (geeks, nerds, etc). – Kids today may seem like loners, but they are most certainly not. What’s different about their social interaction now is who they interact with, what they share and communicate about, and how they do it. They interact now with the world at large, and not the small neighborhood worlds we grew up in. Their nearest friend isn’t on the next block, it could be in another state or country even. You’d be mistaken to think that kids today are less willing to negotiate their requirements for daily living by interacting with peers, family and society in general. They do all this very well, building elaborate social structures with varying levels of trust. While doing so, they also understand that social interactions are governed to a large extent by rules that are in place to ease social friction and to accomplish communication goals. Socially incompetent they are not, however, it must be said that digital technology is rapidly becoming the agent for mediation.

2. Digital natives lead sedentary lifestyles; most are couch potatoes. – This is definitely not true; while we must admit that a growing proportion of these natives come from sedentary lifestyles with little exercise and unhealthy diets, it’s important to know that these same individuals are the ones who adopted ‘dance dance revolution’ and the ‘wii’ without respect to their focus on physical activities. While these kids are using technology to enhance virtuality, it doesn’t mean they want to step away from the physical reality of the world.

3. Digital natives are not in touch with the real world/reality. – I differ in opinion quite strongly about this; digital natives are very much in touch with the world. The issue is that we don’t recognize that world as they do. Digital natives flit between reality and virtuality quite effortlessly. The real and the digital world have merged into one for these individuals. The boundaries of the world for the digital natives are very different from the Boomers, Gen Xers or Gen Yers. Oftentimes, these vastly enlarged boundaries mean that digital natives might ignore individuals physically present in a shared environment and be interacting with someone halfway across the world using technology. They are in touch with reality alright, it’s just not the reality we recognized as such couple of generations ago.

4. Digital natives have short attention spans. – haven’t we heard this one before? From my rather limited experience in raising my six-year old, I would say this is completely wrong. Children if interested and motivated will stick to task for hours, days and weeks. I’ve noticed this with my kid; he loves to play LocoRoco on the PSP; if he comes across what at time is an insurmountable challenge in the game, he will try again and again, with concentrated efforts to get it to work. In some situations, he has gone to the extent of not only mastering the game mechanic but also ‘geeking out’ to maximizing possible game returns with that mechanic. This is not possible unless you pay attention for sustained periods of time. It’s true that they do many things at the same time and constantly switch their attention from task to task. It’s quite common to see older kids these days, using the phone on one hand, tapping away at a computer on another while conducting a conversation with a third person, all this without losing track of individual activities.

5. Digital natives are, in a sense, illiterate. – There is a bit of truth in this myth, but only if you look at it with boomer or genX eyes. Digital natives may not be the best spellers, or may not write the best letters or essays, does that make them illiterate? No, because while they may not write and spell well, they are using technology tools to help accomplish what ‘spelling and syntax’ did for previous generations. These kids will send texts, use email, poke friends on Facebook, tweet, share pictures/videos, even conduct entire relationships online. We need to carefully ask, what does it really mean to be ‘literate’ in a digital world? I think kids comfortable with using technology effectively are the ‘literate’ of this generation.

Image: arztsamui / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

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