Thursday, 17 June 2010

Are you a digital native or a digital immigrant?

This post is written by Marketing Executive, Matthew White.

“It wasn’t like that in my day” is something often said by the older generation to the new one.

There is probably no greater example of 'it not being like that in my day' than the digital revolution that has taken place over the past 20 years - a revolution that has entwined digital technology such as the internet, mobile phones, video games and digital radio into our daily lives.

A growing number of scholars, academics and visionaries have started to believe this latest digital generation is not only different from the last one on a behavioural and social level, but that it thinks and learns differently too.

The new generation are widely known as ‘digital natives’ - a term coined by visionary Marc Prensky. Prensky claims that anybody born after the year 1980 has grown up so immersed in digital technology that it comes completely naturally to them.

Prensky defines anybody born before 1980 as a ‘digital immigrant’. These immigrants have known life before digital technology and, while adjusting well to their new surroundings, never lose their ‘past accent’.

But is it really that clear cut?

Many scholars challenge the claim on the grounds of gender, social demography and the scope of accessibility of digital technology.

They say that boys use digital technology more than girls; people from poorer backgrounds do not have the disposable income to use it; and arguably the most prominent catalyst for the digital revolution, the internet, is still not available in 10 million UK homes. Can the 10-year old socially disadvantaged girl without internet access still be defined as a ‘digital native’?

The debate is broadened by questioning the age-groups. A child born in 1980 was 12 when the internet was invented, a teenager when mobile phones took off and 21 before broadband became widely available. This compared with a child born in 2008 who plays with ‘toy’ laptops (that are actually real laptops), toddler i-phone apps and who can now interact with the cartoons on the internet.

Can both generations really have the same level of digital expertise?

I was born in 1985 and from my own recollection did not grow up immersed in digital technology. This technology, however, undoubtedly now plays a very important role in my daily life, in fact, I cannot imagine life without it. Does this make me a digital immigrant or a digital native?

Perhaps we should be questioning the very existence of the ‘digital natives’. Maybe we are all just immigrants constantly adjusting to the rapid pace of digital evolution.

Do you see yourself as a digital native or a digital immigrant? More importantly, what does it all mean for marketers?


Susi Ibelati said...

I'm definately a digital immigrant.
I was mulling over the idea this morning driving to work how we 'survived' in business when communication was made by telex or landline telephone and we were generally 'uncontactable' when we were away from the office.
My 4 year old grandson however is able to search for what he wants on YouTube and when he's asked for a word beginning with 'G' his first response is 'Google'. He understands the internet terms, frozen, logging on/off and has mastered the use of the mouse.
But as you rightly say, maybe we're all digital immigrants. By the time he's 30 he'll be adapting to new technology without a doubt.

Maria Gandara said...

I was born in 1967 and consider myself a "settled" digital immigrant. I use online media for work and pleasure and never saw it as technology but as communication. As I have family abroad I was able to see the communication benefits straight away. I think that people underestimate the desire for communication at all ages and overestimate how difficult it might be to use technology.

Meryl said...

I think you are right to identify a 'grey area' because it's hard to distinguish quite so simply the line between a 'native' and 'immigrant'. What about the people who are creating the new technology who were born before this 1980 cut off point? Steve Jobs, CEO of Apple who has essentially created the ipod, iphone and ipad would be described as an 'immigrant' (he was born in 1955) BUT he has the intellect to create these products that have become or are becoming a pretty strong digital presence in the life of a digital 'native'.

Disadvantaged children do have the chance to access digital media due to the resources in pretty much every school so they may not get the headstart as a child whose parents think it's important they have a 'toy laptop' or mobile phone at 5 years old they will have access to technology in school and from friends as well as in daily life... even shopping malls use touchscreen maps.

I think that the digital native will exist but today's digital native will not all necessarily become tomorrow's digital native.

Rushabh said...

The natives now will be the immigrants someday. This will be the trend until there are no more technological advances and the digital world comes to a stand still (Highly unlikelt to happen).

Peter Johnston (via LinkedIn) said...

It has considerable relevance in marketing. The internet has changed marketing more than any other major discipline and the marketing world is now drawn up into digital marketers and traditional marketers.

Even if I was born again it would have been before 1980, when I began my marketing career. I learned all about Cow Gum and screens, spot colours and linotrons. I've become a committed online marketer and am disappointed newspapers and television are taking so long to die.

What gets me most, however, is that people confuse tactics with strategy. While the methods and tactics have changed beyond recognition, Porter's five forces, the 4 Ps and the GE matrix all hold just as true as before I knew nothing about them.

It is time to bury the online/offline battle hatchet.

Anonymous said...

Even though I was born '88 I consider myself as a digital immigrant. The technological progress is just too fast to 'grow with'. Still I believe it is a lot easier for someone born in the beginning of the digital era to adapt new technologies than it is for someone born before this period.

Angela Ward said...

Like Maria, I was also born in 1967 and so, I guess, am a digital immigrant.

When I first started work, we only had electric typewriters and sending a telex was considered very modern. This involved typing a message on a special form which had to be sent over to another building. The whole process could take up to a day. I can remember being terribly excited when a fax machine appeared on our floor and then a computer arrived in the office - just one for us to share.

I look back now and can't imagine how I got any work done and how I communicated - and I was working on an international magazine.

Today it is so much easier to keep in touch. My daughter's teacher is moving to Canada next week and I fully expect to have as much 'contact' with her (through FaceBook) as I do with friends who live in the same road. I have a friend in Portugal who I chat to on Skype and FaceBook nearly every day.

There may be digital natives - but the world moves on each week at a faster and faster pace. We all have to keep up-to-date or we will be left behind.

Malcolm Davison said...

I often joke that I am so old that I used to program and operate computers when they ran on steam. Thanks to the coal-fired power stations supplying the electricity, of course, many still do!

Computers were room-size, cost as much as a medium-sized passenger jet, with less power power than my mobile phone and they communicated using a bank of winking lights and an electric typewriter. They didn't have a screen like today. They were tended to by white coated priests - operators and engineers. The humming beasts had to be fed with punched cards, huge disc packs and spools of magnetic and paper tape. In response they spewed out miles of continuous stationery.

I was involved in the banks change over with Decimalisation in 1971 when I was a programmer at Barclays Bank. I used to write books about microcomputers in the 80s, and today train bank staff, Whitehall departments - even at the UN. I will be 62 in a few days time.

If you want to get serious about computers they can be as challenging and difficult as any other complex technical subject.

But computer savvy brains have been a around for a hundred years - Alan Turning, Charles Babbage, etc. There's nothing new here.

The beauty is that computers have been made so much easier so that anyone can use them to quite a sophisticated level.

Indeed to survive in business in these recessionary times today, efficiency through the use of computer knowledge is, in my view, a prerequisite.

As for Marc Prensky and his ideas, in my view, people are not changing in the way he is implying.

But people will use the new technology to learn, I certainly do. I even sell an elearning course that teaches web writing - computers can be a better way to learn. Prensky ought to take the course - his writing skills badly need improvement!

Even Shakespeare would have used a laptop!

Matthew White said...

Hi everyone,

I would just like to thank you all for your insightful thoughts and comments regarding the immigrant/native discussion. They helped add depth to the research I had already undertaken for my MA thesis and were all greatly appreciated.

There will be a blog summerising my findings coming very soon.

Thanks again

All the best,


Matthew White said...

Hi everyone,

I would just like to thank you all for your insightful thoughts and comments regarding the immigrant/native discussion. They helped add depth to the research I had already undertaken for my MA thesis and were all greatly appreciated.

There will be a blog summerising my findings coming very soon.

Thanks again

All the best,


Ofer Zur said...

Interesting blog. My digital native daughter, Azzia Zur and myself, Ofer Zur, a digital immigrant have just posted an update article, titled ”On Digital Immigrants and Digital Natives: How the Digital Divide Affects Families, Educational Institutions, and the Workplace”available at