Myth #27: Millennials are all Internet-savvy ‘digital natives’.
Myth: Children grow up in mediatized environments, know the Internet intimately, appropriate digital media easily and thus adopt media literacy automatically. Compared to them, adults are often seen as ‘digital immigrants’ who have no chance of using the Internet and online media as virtuously as present and future young generations.
Busted: Children are exposed to digital media increasingly earlier. Even babies and toddlers see their parents or caregivers using smartphones or mediated via screens. Devices with touch screens or voice control (e.g. digital assistants like Siri or smart speakers like Alexa) do not require any writing or keyboard skills, so that even very young children can very easily use digital applications. Current data show that the spread of digital mobile devices has increased in recent years and that the age at which children get their first own smartphones continues to decrease. For most teenagers in western countries it is now common to own a smartphone. However, the digital possibilities are used very diversely, mostly for communication and entertainment, less for information and participation. But it is the natural and (sometimes very) intensive use of the various digital possibilities which conveys the impression that children master digital technologies and handle them more competently than adults.
However, we often disregard that self-determined, sovereign media handling requires more than technical use. On the one hand, a certain understanding of media, media-related structures and functionalities is needed to assess and classify different media (e.g. What distinguishes public from commercial programs? What are algorithms and how do they impact online content and usage? How does, e.g., online advertising work? What is an influencer?). On the other hand, self-determination also means that the media are used as ways of expression, to articulate one’s own views, without violating dignity and rights of others. Finally, it is also a matter of reflecting on the possibilities and risks of digitization on an individual and societal level and using the creative and participatory potential of different media.
Current studies show that adolescents – depending on, e.g., age, social context and educational background – use digital opportunities in very different ways and that the skills are very differently developed. It still seems that those with privileged socio-economic status and higher educational backgrounds use digital opportunities in more diverse ways and therefore benefit more from them. The differences also point to the fact that (digital) inequalities have shifted from access (‘digital divide’) to use (‘second digital divide’). For educational institutions, this means that not only the technical infrastructure should be considered and optimized, but especially the use and reflection of digital online programs.
Truth: The fact that children grow up in mediatized environments does not mean that all use digital media (equally) competently. On the one hand the individual requirements are very different, on the other hand a self-determined and sovereign use requires more than technical skills.
Source: Eszter Hargittai und Yuli Patrick Hsieh, Digital Inequality, in William H. Dutton (ed.), The Oxford Handbook of Internet Studies (Oxford: OUP, 2013), DOI: 10.1093/oxfordhb/9780199589074.013.0007; Marc Prensky, Digital Natives, Digital Immigrants, On the Horizon (2001), www.marcprensky.com/writing/Prensky%20-%20Digital%20Natives,%20Digital%20Immigrants%20-%20Part1.pdf.