Digital natives? Meh! (or “Prensky revisited”)

Call me old fashioned, but: I really don’t think business needs to worry about so called “digital natives”.

Who are they? Well, I suppose we had better go back to the person who invented the term, Marc Prensky, who used it when talking about students enrolling at university in 2001. These people would have been born in around 1983, so they will be around 30 now. 

These people (so the Prensky theory goes) are radically different from previous generations, his so-called “digital immigrants”:

  • They are used to receiving information really fast
  • They like to parallel process and multi-task
  • They prefer their graphics before their text rather than the opposite
  •  They prefer random access (like hypertext)
  • They function best when networked
  • They thrive on instant gratification and frequent rewards
  • They prefer games to “serious” work

All of this is because they have been surrounded by digital technology such as “computers, video games, digital music players, video cams, cell phones” for most of their lives. And because of this there is a “discontinuity” between these people and the people who grew up before them.

It’s probably unfair to criticise Prensky at this distance in time. But the trouble is people are still talking about his digital natives and saying that they are somehow different from the rest of us. I’d disagree. For a start most of the technologies that Prensky mentions had been around for quite a while in 2001 and would have been very familiar to many “digital immigrants” as well as  his “digital natives”.

Many people in the 1970s had been exposed to computers. They would have been playing video games from an early age (Space Invaders anyone?). They would have used portable (if not digital) music players on the way to school and video cams at the weekend.

Other technologies came too late for Prensky’s “digital natives”. Cell phones? These didn’t achieve 10% penetration in the USA until about 1993 so most “digital natives” didn’t grow up with them. Same for the internet : when our “digital natives” were around 12 years old in 1995, internet penetration in the USA had only just hit 10%.

OK, perhaps Prensky was a bit too quick off the mark back in 2001. Those digital natives weren’t really around then. But they might exist by now. And, if you have read this far, that might be what you are worried about.

Perhaps people who grow up with digital technology that they

  • interact with
  • regularly
  • at home

really are different. Perhaps, as some people have claimed, their brains are wired differently because of their early experiences. That might be. But I don’t think the differences are those that Prensky described.

They like to parallel process and multi-task: they are used to doing homework while watching TV or listening to music. That’s really new? I don’t think so. It’s been standard teenage and student behaviour ever since I was a kid. (It’s also inefficient as most psychologists will tell you which is why it is illegal to use your mobile when you are driving a car.)

They prefer their graphics before their text rather than the opposite. This isn’t particularly important from a business perspective, but again I am not convinced this is new. You just have to look at learn-to-read books from the 1950s (and earlier) to see that graphics and text often go together in a learning context (not “before” or “after”).

They function best when networked. It is increasingly true that networked information is always available. This is changing people, but not necessarily for the better. For example, people who come to rely on SatNav devices tend to lose map-reading skills; they follow navigation instructions rather than using common sense. And it isn’t just (some) digital natives who display an over-reliance on information from third parties. This is, unfortunately, behaviour than anyone can learn, not just digital natives.

They thrive on instant gratification and frequent reward. Most people do. Only the most disciplined can resist the opportunity of getting something now at the expense of having less in the future. Ask the credit card companies.

They prefer games to “serious” work. Only an academic would think this an unusual human condition.

This leaves one thing that could actually be connected with technology. They prefer random access to information. If this is true, there may well be implications for education in terms of course structure and the structure of learning aids.

But is it something that business needs to respond to (beyond including hypertext links in websites)?

In some cases, it is. Music and other media products (generally excluding things with a “story” element) need to allow random exploration.

But what else does? Not cornflakes (random information features would be boring). Not cars (random information features would be dangerous). Not retail (random menus would be highly frustrating).

In fact randomness of information access is not a particularly useful feature for most products, although of course the option to explore information in a non-linear fashion is. There is little new about that, however: even printed books have indexes.

None of this is to say that society isn’t changing. It is. But there hasn’t been a discontinuous change that makes digital natives (whenever they were born) different from digital immigrants. One thing less to worry about? Perhaps. But that still means you need to understand the behaviour of today’s “digital consumers”. And some aspects of it might just surprise you.

To find out how your business needs to respond to changing consumer behaviour why not email me at jeremy@mosoco.co.uk.

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