The digital native is a myth: new paper claims that “information-savvy digital natives do not exist”

A paper published last month in Teaching and Teacher Education claims that the digital native is a myth. The paper presents scientific evidence showing that there is no such thing as a digital native who is more tech-savvy or good at multitasking than older generations.

We’ve heard it before: Digital natives are information-savvy and have the ability to process multiple sources of information simultaneously (aka, multitasking). Digital natives, those born after 1980, are known as “native speakers” (Prensky, 2001) of the digital language of computers, video games, and the internet. 

The term digital native was popularized by education consultant Marc Prensky in his 2001 essay entitled “Digital Natives, Digital Immigrants”. In the essay, Prensky claimed that the contemporary decline in American education was due to educators' failure to understand the needs of modern students. Arguing that "the arrival and rapid dissemination of digital technology in the last decade of the 20th century" had changed the way students think and process information. 

Because the new generations grow up surrounded by technology (using computers, playing video games, using cell phones, etcétera), Prensky concluded that “today’s students think and process information fundamentally differently from their predecessors.”

But according to a recent editorial in Nature, the digital natives are a myth. The editorial reviews a paper published last month in Teaching and Teacher Education, the paper claims that the digital native is a myth, “a yeti with a smartphone.”

The authors say that there is no scientific evidence to suggest that digital natives are more tech-savvy or good at multitasking than older generations. The paper presents scientific evidence showing that there is no such thing as a digital native who is information-skilled simply because he was born in a digital world.

“Many members of the digital-savvy generation use technology in the same way as many of their elders: to passively soak up information,” warn the authors of the paper. 

Some of the key findings of the paper are:

  • Information-savvy digital natives do not exist.
  • Learners cannot multitask; they task switch which negatively impacts learning.
  • Educational design assuming these myths hinders rather than helps learning.

For higher education the implications of this claim are huge. The rise of the idea of the digital native has been used as a justification for significant policy changes.

“Education policy is particularly vulnerable to political whims, fads and untested assumptions,” points out the Nature editorial. “From swapping evolution for creationism to the idea that multiple types of intelligence demand multiple approaches, generations of children are schooled according to dogma, not evidence.” 

“Designing education that assumes the presence of this ability hinders rather than helps learning,” the researchers warned. With this new piece of evidence, what other implications should we consider from now on? The paper elaborates possible implications and recommendations on this matter. 

Meanwhile, we can all learn a lesson: Don’t fall for fads and untested assumptions.