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digital native

noun [countable]

a person who has grown up in a world with digital technology such as the Internet and mobile phones

opposite

digital immigrant

noun [countable]

'This week I have decided to Twitter … Based on wanting to be indigenous (i.e. a digital native rather than a digital immigrant) this seemed a good place to start.'

Computer Weekly 4th April 2008

'Our digital-native children simultaneously instant message one another, listen to iPods and watch videos – while doing their homework.'

Wall Street Journal 21st April 2008

'As older people become more web-savvy … the line between "digital natives" and "digital immigrants" is blurring: even the over-50s are quite comfortable using Amazon and YouTube …'

Information World Review 9th April 2008

Do you find it impossible to visualize a world where you couldn't send a quick text, google a recipe, or buy a washing machine from the comfort of your own home? Or do you, like me, remember the days when you desperately needed to make a call and couldn't find a phone box, when you had to go to the library to research your school history project, and when you needed to spend an entire day visiting electrical stores to decide on that all-important washing machine purchase? If you fit into the former category, then you're a digital native. And the rest of us? We have our very own antonym – we are the digital immigrants.

there's a whole generation of individuals for whom concepts such as the Internet and wireless technology are just humdrum

Digital technology has been the norm, part of everyday life, for many years now, so logically there's a whole generation of individuals for whom concepts such as the Internet and wireless technology are just humdrum, because they've never lived in a world where they didn't exist. These are the so-called digital natives, generally anyone born from 1980 onwards. Digital immigrants are their antithesis, being the folks born earlier who, either reluctantly or enthusiastically, have adapted to the digital world and incorporated its tools into their lives.

The contrast can be illustrated by 2008 teenagers, digital natives, doing their homework whilst listening to music, periodically searching for information online, instant messaging, and texting from mobile phones. The teenagers' parents, the digital immigrants, might view this situation as inappropriate, pointing out the number of 'distractions' and suggesting that their offspring should go somewhere quiet in order to 'focus'.

Observation of contrasts such as these has led to what is referred to as digital nativism, the idea that those who have grown up in the digital world have an advantage, not only in terms of using technology, but because of enhanced cognitive skills developing from a multi-tasking, 'always-on' way of life.

Predictably, the distinction between digital natives and digital immigrants is controversial, not least because the digital universe currently inhabited by digital natives was in fact conceived and created by digital immigrants. It also makes assertions that may not be consistently valid, i.e. the idea that younger adults and children are always comfortable with technology, and that correspondingly older people are more likely to find technology awkward.

Background – digital native and digital immigrant

The terms digital native and digital immigrant were coined in 2001 by Marc Prensky, an American writer and educational game designer. These terms were featured in his book Digital Game-Based Learning (McGraw-Hill, 2001). The idea underlying the two expressions is that a native is someone for whom the religion, language and culture of a country is entirely natural, whereas an immigrant to that country has to adapt and assimilate to the new home they've adopted.

Prensky even takes the analogy a step further and talks about the 'accents' characteristic of digital immigrants. These he equates to operating in pre-digital ways, such as printing out documents in hard copy, or following up an e-mail with a telephone call in order to check that the e-mail arrived.

by Kerry Maxwell, author of Brave New Words

This article was first published on 27th August 2008.

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