Who’s a Digital Native?

As I’m working through a study (PDF, there’s an English summary at the end) on “Youth, Information, (Multi-) Media” (JIM), I wonder if there’s really a need for the term “digital native”.

The study only refers to it briefly. Its authors use the term for the generation they are writing about, those who are 12 to 19 years old at the moment. “Digital natives” has become a name for a generation rather than a description of certain habits.

That’s different from what it was when Marc Prensky coined it in his 2001 work “Digital Natives, Digital Immigrants”. Back then, there was no generation grown up in the age of ubiquitous Internet access. Here’s what Wikipedia has to say on the origin of the term “digital native”, as used by Prensky:

The term draws an analogy to a country’s natives, for whom the local religion, language, and folkways are natural and indigenous, over against immigrants to a country who often are expected to adapt and assimilate to their newly adopted home. Prensky refers to accents employed by digital immigrants, such as printing documents rather than commenting on screen or printing out emails to save in hard copy form. Digital immigrants are said to have a “thick accent” when operating in the digital world in distinctly pre-digital ways, for instance, calling someone on the telephone to ask if they have received a sent e-mail.

In their 2008 book “Born Digital”, John Palfrey and Urs Gasser make it explicitly clear: Not everybody growing up in these times, as Internet use is the norm, is a digital native. The authors rather describe them as the heavy users and early adopters of the Internet and the social web among the young generation.

Which is probably a good distinction to make. As the study I cited above shows, sophisticated use of social media is far from being the norm among Germany’s youth. While Internet penetration in this group is close to 100 % and nearly everybody uses it – with instant messaging and social networks being the most popular applications – participation stays at a low level.

Only 37% create own content on the web at least once a week. In most cases, this means writing a forum entry or uploading photos or videos. As a blogger and twitterer, I am clearly not a common example for my generation. According to the study, only 4% each do this daily or several times a week. But today, I am also a professional. For me, it’s no longer “user-generated content”. It is (also) writing for a living.

So while on the one hand the promise of participation and democratized media does not seem to appeal to Germany’s youth, they just love passivity on the other hand. Nearly two thirds say it’s great you don’t have to actively look for content on TV. Is this a Bradbury generation? (Well, no. Book reading has increased by two percentage points since 1998, the study says).

In fact, nothing may have changed with the Internet. At least that’s what digital anthropologist danah boyd is saying. “There’s nothing native about young people’s engagement with technology”, a recent (very read-worthy) article in The Guardian quotes her. She goes on:

Young people are learning, they’re learning about the social world around them. The social world around them today has mediated technologies, thus in order to learn about the social world they’re learning about the mediated technologies. And they’re leveraging that to work out the shit that kids have always worked out: peer sociality, status, their first crush.

The JIM study might suggest danah is right. For the youth of today, the Internet is a communication medium. But it’s not the borderless cyberspace the utopists in the ’90 dreamed of. Only 7% say they have befriended people in social networks they haven’t met face to face. For this generation, the World Wide Web is a very local thing. Just as communication was ever before.