This post is adapted from a lightning talk presented at the 2023 Global Digital Development Forum (GDDF).

The term digital native was coined by Mark Prensky in 2001. The writer and educator used it to broadly describe a generation that grew up in an era shaped by the internet and digital technology. Digital natives are believed to possess a mastery of technological skills that are inherently different from prior generations. Prensky referred to the arrival of the digital age as a “singularity” that caused students of the time to “think and process information fundamentally differently than their predecessors.” These skills were attributed to the early introduction of digital tools into the homes, schools, and social lives of young people and the perception that this technology is seamlessly integrated into their daily interactions.

In the decades since that term was introduced, it has remained a part of our public discourse, especially as our world continues to rapidly digitize. Countless articles have dissected the ways in which our companies, workplaces, classrooms, and governments have had to adapt to effectively engage these new generations to stay relevant. The term has also served as a beacon of hope, as leaders across the Global South recognize the potential for their booming youth populations to drive their countries forward by engaging in the digital economy.

Cambodia DI.jpgPhoto: USAID Cambodia Development Innovations.

Missed Opportunity?

The more we at DAI’s Center for Digital Acceleration kept hearing about digital natives, the more we wondered if our stereotypes about them we were causing us to miss an opportunity to learn about a population that might be key to global digital development. In exploring this question, we learned that the term digital native is not a useful way to categorize young people who have acquired digital competencies. In fact, it can actually be harmful, introducing the idea that young people don’t need any additional support from their communities in navigating online spaces or their journey to digital competency.

First, there’s a lack of empirical evidence supporting Prensky’s definition. Since the term was introduced, researchers have conducted their own analysis to determine whether Prensky’s measures of digital nativism, things like: age cohort, frequent use, being self-taught, and having the ability to multitask produce similar findings when tested. Multiple research papers have found that digital competence is not driven by age, but rather by factors such as familiarity and cost. Researchers found that those who meet the definition of a digital native were simply just members of a digital elite with enough access to internet, affordable devices, digital tools in languages they understood, and opportunities to use digital technology at home and school, to truly master them. This makes the term quite exclusionary and treats technological savvy as an inevitable characteristic of the young rather than a privilege associated with socio-economic status. By focusing on digital natives as an age cohort, we risk excluding populations around the world that don’t have the same access to the internet and devices that wealthier populations do.

Second, the term treats digital competence as a binary: either you have it or you don’t. Either you’re young and a digital native, or in Prensky’s terms, you’re old and a digital immigrant. This is a problematic framing, since we know that digital literacy is a continuum. It takes time to develop the capability, competence, and confidence needed to safely engage in our digital world. Just because young people may have the capability, it doesn’t mean that they have the competence or confidence.

Erwati, a cadre for Gerai KIA Mobile is guiding a pregnant woman in using MCH Booklet (Photo by Oscar Siagian for USAID Jalin).jpgPhoto: USAID Indonesia Jalin.

Support Access for All

As such, we shouldn’t be designing for digital natives, but rather using what the term represents as an aspiration. How amazing would it be to live in a world where everyone, no matter their age, has the access and knowledge they need to use digital tools to support their economic, social, and political lives? We’re not there yet, and simply being born into the digital age doesn’t guarantee this will happen for a young person.

So, in the meantime, the development community must continue to invest in programs that increase young people’s access to devices, provide support to parents and teachers to increase exposure at home and at school, and improve digital literacy across areas such as digital content creation, safety, and problem solving. We also have an opportunity to expand activities that leverage social media and communications tools (which are some of the few areas where there are generational differences in use).

When it comes to building digital competencies, I do believe the kids will be alright, but only if we continue to intentionally provide support, training, and guidance, and build inclusive digital tools that cater to different contexts and languages.