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Definition

digital native

Contributor(s): Alexander Gillis, Matthew Haughn

A digital native is a person who grew up with the presence of digital technology or in the information age. Having grown up in IT's presence, digital natives are comfortable with and fluent in technology. The term contrasts with people who were born before the digital age, who may have more difficulty and be hesitant around learning how to use new technology.

Generally, millennials are seen as the first digital natives, followed by any generations that occur after.

Digital natives grew up with the technology that, by and large, became fundamental to social, educational and professional lives. For example, social media has provided new ways for socializing and online courses have provided new ways to learn. Skill sets were formed in job searching through being familiarized with digital technologies and being adaptable to new digital interfaces, not to mention the way communication technology has evolved since communicating through text messages. 

Digital native generations

Digital natives are generally identified as the millennial generation and the generations that come after; as of right now, this includes Generation Z. Millennials and following generations have spent nearly their entire lives surrounded by computers, digital devices and the world of social media. This digital literacy has made these generations very comfortable with and fluent in the use of technology. As young adults, digital natives should be able to use modern technology proficiently, to find jobs and to better prepare themselves for everyday life.

Those in the first generation to be a part of the digital native group, millennials, were born broadly between the years of 1980 and 2000. Young people currently part of Generation Z were born after the year 2000. This generation, even more so than millennials, have spent more time in their life in the digital world.

Generations that came before digital native generations include the lost generation, the greatest generation, the silent generation, baby boomers and Generation X. In order from oldest to youngest, these generations range from 1883-1900, 1901-1927, 1928-1945, 1946-1964 and 1965 through the 1980s, respectively. Generally, these generations are marked by some sort of event, like the Great Depression and WWII for the greatest generation and the silent generation.

Business impact of digital natives

Digital natives are often promoting themselves in the hiring process above previous generations; especially in many technical jobs. They are also credited for a few distinct contributions to the workplace.

Thanks to digital natives' familiarity, social media has become a major platform for marketing. A strong social media strategy is an important piece for building strong brand recognition.

Digital natives can also bring new ideas into the workplace. Younger workers can bring fresh points of view and ideas to a business, such as ideas for new technologies or how the workplace environment can be set up.

Digital natives are also sometimes credited with making the push to adopt the cloud. From a consumer standpoint, digital natives were amongst see value in what the cloud was, advocating for the move to cloud platforms.

The increase in the use of smartphones by digital natives has also had an impact on the way software applications are delivered to consumers. Originally, the term 'application' would refer to desktop applications, but the term is now synonymous with mobile applications as younger generations use mobile devices. As digital natives became more comfortable with certain interfaces, a literacy for initially understanding small cues in graphic platform design was also developed.

Digital natives and digital immigrants

Younger generations of digital natives are sometimes referred to as being born digital. However, that doesn't mean previous generations can be diverse and adaptive to technology either. Those who haven't been exposed to digital technologies at an early age, but are well versed in the use of newer technologies, are known as digital immigrants. Digital immigrants are, generally speaking, generations born before Millennials who are comfortable around the use and adaptation of new digital platforms -- they lack a fear or hesitance around digital technology.

Age and technology adoption

Much of a digital native's ability to use technology is the result of early exposure and familiarization. They are more familiar with how programs are laid out and more able to interpret a variety of visual languages -- such as the small visual cues in a graphical user interface (GUI) that rely on assumptions that a user will know based on previous experiences in other programs.

It may be thought that older generations are less likely to adapt to newer technologies and social platforms, preferring what they know and are familiar with. However, this may not entirely be the case. A study from the Pew Research Center analysis of Bureau of Labor Statistics found that in 2000, 14% of people over 65 were internet users, which grew to 73% over time. Also, 53% of people 65 over are smartphone owners. In addition, it is likely that older Americans are more likely to view newer technologies in a positive light. Possibly due to the positive effects that technology has in areas like communication.

For older generations that don't adapt to new digital platforms, it could be due to lack of understanding, confidence or motivation regarding the platform. These reasons could act as a barrier to entry. The more exposure they have to that technology, the more likely they may be able to adopt it. 

Digital native groups

When talking about digital natives, different groups may be mentioned. For example, whether they belong in the millennial generation or in Generation Z. Some groupings may also be made from digital competencies or cultural knowledge. In this case, groupings could be made through something like digital media or social networking consumption. Some scholars have also commented on using technological literacy to distinguish varieties of cultural consumption.

Some have also mentioned a new group of digital natives starting as native speakers in schools, although this has been questioned -- as there is not a big enough difference in any groups for it to be considered a generational gap.

There are also some digital native brands out there that have centered themselves around the concept, such as Digital Natives, a digital marketing agency.

History and evolution of digital natives

The term digital native was originally popularized in a 2001 article by Marc Prensky, an educational consultant. The article, "Digital Natives, Digital Immigrants," addressed American education's failures to understand modern students. Prensky continued to argue that the rate at which new technologies are adopted, then dismissed soon after, is changing the way students process information. This led to Prensky believing that children require media-rich learning environments -- more so to hold their attention. The term was not strictly defined, so there was a loose definition made and a date later attached -- applying to children born after 1980.

Although popular, Prensky and others began to criticize the term. Prensky began preferring to use the term digital wisdom, while others began arguing that the labels oversimplify determinations of individuals and generational gaps. After this, some began using the term with more specific classifications, such as avoiders, enthusiastic participants or minimalists.

In this video, a very young digital native lists her demands for library content:

This was last updated in June 2020

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