FSEM: Beyond the Selfie
November 16th, 2017
Digital Immigrants vs. Digital Natives
The development of the World Wide Web, beginning in the early 1990s, was the start of a technological revolution that affected generations of people and how they relate to technology. In 2001, Mark Prensky coined the terms “digital immigrants” and “digital natives” to describe online citizens. Digital immigrant is used to describe those who were born before 1985 and who have adopted technology at a later point in life. Digital native refers to the generations of people who grew up in the digital age and are comfortable with technology from an early age. They consider technology to be a fundamental and necessary part of their lives. Digital immigrants have had to adjust or “immigrate” into a world filled with technology, while Digital natives were born into it and have never known a time without it so it feels “native” to them. The variations in the technological landscapes of these different generations affect their attitudes about how technology should fit into their daily lives.
Digital immigrants grew up in a very different world than digital natives. They naturally reach for a phone to make a call rather than sending texts. Some digital immigrants may choose to read the newspaper to get their news rather than going online because it is what is more familiar to them. Digital immigrants grew up in the era of phonebooks, landlines with cords, and carrying around dimes for the pay-phone. There were no laptops or smartphones with built-in calculators, cameras, flashlights, calendars, and clocks. Finding their way when they were lost involved reaching for the map in the glove compartment. There was no GPS for finding directions. Getting information at a library took longer since they were using card catalogs and encyclopedias instead of computers. If you missed your favorite show and forgot to set the VCR, you were out of luck as online videos and YouTube did not exist. Before the days of 24-hour news, there was the evening news or daily newspapers. Before personal computers, people used typewriters, and if they wanted to sell anything, they would post an ad in the classifieds section of a newspaper instead of using eBay or Craigslist. Because of these fundamental differences in the presence of technology in their daily lives, the ways that these two groups feel about technology differs. Dr. Thomas Plante, a professor of psychology at Santa Clara University explained that while digital immigrants can learn to use smartphones, Facebook, and other technologies, they will never feel as comfortable with them as digital natives are. “It is like learning a second language,” he says. “You can communicate, but with some struggle.” Yale and Harvard-educated speaker and writer Mark Prensky echoes a similar idea in his book From Digital Native to Digital Wisdom when he refers to digital immigrants as having an “accent” when learning the digital language of how to utilize digital technology to communicate and interact. Their accents are a hint of their old lives from before automation and search engines. They vary from person to person depending on their skills, proficiency, and general level of comfort in the digital world. These accents that digital immigrants have make communication with digital natives a challenge.
In contrast to the tendencies of the digital immigrants, digital natives are much more comfortable with, and used to, receiving information at a much faster rate. In fact, more than 73% of teenagers, ages 13-17, have a smartphone. They tend to do research online, using websites instead of libraries, because of their convenience and efficiency. They naturally took to social media platforms for communication and social interaction. Sometimes, confused digital immigrants trying to learn new digital skills will go to digital natives for help, since most digital natives are not shy about what they can do with an iPad, smartphone, or computer. Some digital natives are so deep in the electronic world that they don’t even recognize tools that were once basic in the lives of their parents. Things, like cassette tapes and microfilm, may be unfamiliar and strange to them.
Like most groups, there are some stereotypes associated with both digital natives and digital immigrants that do not apply to everyone in the groups. Because digital immigrants did not grow up with the internet in their lives, some might think that they could never learn to use it the way digital natives have. Many people can imagine a grumpy old man yelling “back in my day, we didn’t have none of these new-fangled gizmos”. However, some of the pioneers and innovators of the digital age, including Bill Gates and Steve Jobs, are digital immigrants who ultimately helped to create the world that digital natives are so used to. The reverse may also be a myth, that all digital natives are tech-savvy computer wizards. In reality, 83% of teens spend time with their closest friend at school, while only 55% spend time with their closest friend online. Teen smartphone users are more likely to say they spend time with their closest friend at a number of in-person activities, including at school, at someone’s house or while shopping. One of the cornerstones of the digital world is social media. More and more social media platforms, like Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube, are driven by the needs of people, both digital natives and digital immigrants, to communicate. Social media did not exist while digital immigrants were growing up. A party-line phone was closest thing. Individuals met face to face at social gatherings to share information, gossip, and connect with friends. Dances, church picnics, family gatherings, and even the watercooler at work all served the purpose that social media does now. Wallets would open to show photos that are now posted on Facebook and Instagram. Political thoughts and gossip were shared by coworkers gathered at the watercooler or staff lounge. There was no Twitter on which to post those thoughts for all to see. When digital immigrants wanted to catch up with far flung friends or family, they would pick up the phone or even hand-write letters. The social lives of digital natives are a different landscape. A 2014-2015 Pew Research Center survey found that 57 percent of teens ages 13 to 17 have met a new friend online. The same survey found that 79% of all teens instant message their friends. Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram remain some of the most popular social media platforms used by older teens and young adults who would be considered digital natives. According to a Pew Research Survey, 87% of online American adults ages 18-29 use Facebook, 37% use Twitter, and 53% use Instagram. You would think that with all their social media use and resources that digital natives would be the happiest and most socially savvy people on earth. However, all this social media use can cause anxiety and lead to self-esteem issues from having such up close and personal looks into the lives of other people. Since people tend to post mostly positive things about themselves social media users can sometimes feel as though their own lives are inadequate. The speed and expectation of a rapid response can also make users of social media and instant communication feel isolated if responses don’t come in a timely manner. Another negative aspect of social media use among digital natives is cyberbullying. Unlike the old-school stereotype of a mean schoolyard bully, cyberbullies can enter your home through social networking sites. Cyberbullying is the use of technology to harass, threaten, or embarrass another person. One in four teens admit to being the victims of cyberbullying and one of six admit to cyberbullying someone. Heavy social media users and those who create content though blogs, uploading photo, etc. are most likely to report cyberbullying and harassment. The ability to post anonymously makes it easier for digital natives to communicate negative and bullying comments now than in the age of digital immigrants who had to bully and insult other people verbally. Because digital natives are so used to communicating online, their face-to-face social skills are often not as well developed as those of digital immigrants. Digital natives can miss out on important social lessons if they spend too much time online. Clinical psychologist, Dr. Catherine Steiner-Adair notes “There’s no question kids are missing out on very critical social skills. In a way, texting and online communicating—it’s not like it creates a nonverbal learning disability, but it puts everybody in a non-verbal disabled context, where body language, facial expression, and even the smallest kinds of vocal reactions are rendered invisible”. Digital immigrants and digital natives have also experienced differences when it comes to dating. Digital immigrants are accustomed to many more face-to-face interactions when it comes to meeting a significant other. Because digital media did not exist, digital Immigrants got to know each other and asked others out on dates in person or over the telephone. They would spend time at social events, go to the movies, hang out at the mall, or spend time hanging out with groups of friends in someone’s basement. Digital natives have lot more options when it comes to communicating with potential significant others. For example, you can call, text, video chat, Facetime, email, Snapchat, Facebook message, and instant message your potential date in addition to traditional methods such an in-person and telephone. Digital natives, particularly Millennials, often find it easier to use online dating instead of the traditional methods for meeting other used by digital immigrants in their younger days. It allows them greater scheduling flexibility and is less intimidating than meeting others face-to-face. Millennials prefer to be socially connected to the people they date and use social media or online dating sites to help find people with whom they have something in common. The down side of that is that online profiles are not always truthful and having such a large group to search through can make people disposable and replaceable. In relying too heavily on the internet as a source for dating, digital natives have not had as many opportunities as digital immigrants to develop their social skills. “When it comes to love, and when it comes to dating you simply cannot replace face-to-face meeting with texting, typing, or any kind of technology”. In addition, the availability of so many methods of digital communication can also put pressure on couples to be in constant contact.
The clash between digital natives and digital immigrants becomes increasingly obvious when it comes to the education styles used to teach the two groups. Digital immigrants grew up listening to teachers speak and write on a blackboard with chalk. A day when a filmstrip shown in class was considered the height of technology. Computers in classrooms did not exist. Students went to the library to do research since the use of online articles for projects was out of the question. The problem is that most digital natives are being taught curriculums in classrooms designed by digital immigrants. The increasing importance of digital knowledge, yet the slow integration of this technology into student learning curriculums has been a setback for them. With technical proficiency growing increasingly prominent in the lives of people, both in school and on a day-to-day basis, it seems only natural that digital natives would want it as a part of their education. One trouble noted in From Digital Native to Digital Wisdom was that American education styles were not changing to allow for young people to include technology in their education and that this has led to a rise in boredom among students. They still use the so-called “discipline” approach of teaching kids what they should learn, rather than using their passions to encourage their learning. Prensky offers an alternative solution. “What if, instead, we asked the kids what their passions are and invited them to follow and use those passions as a gateway to all kinds of learning-learning that will help our help our country and the world.” This technique has been tried in several learning environments, including MIT, and in each location students have shown an increase in education success.
Despite the challenges faced by both digital natives and digital immigrants, the overall effects of digital change have revolutionized aspects of our every-day lives. Although they may have grown up with different attitudes towards technology, that same technology can also help bridge communication between different generations. For example, a study published in 2015, showed that 56% of online adults over 65 years old used Facebook. That means grandma is joining Facebook in order to communicate with the grandkids she would otherwise find it difficult to talk to. As more and more digital natives enter the workplace, especially the teaching profession, the way younger digital natives are taught will also begin to change. Although technology is not native to them, digital immigrants are just as capable of learning to make the best use of technology provided they are motivated. As digital natives instruct digital immigrants in how to live in this world full of technology, digital immigrants can return the favor by sharing the wisdom of the old ways.