How would you describe your use of technology?

Photo by Leonard Beck on Unsplash

Who Are You?

Digital Native? Digital Immigrant? Digital Visitor? Digital Resident?

Does it matter?

Almost 20 years ago, Marc Prensky coined the term Digital Native to describe someone who has grown up in the digital age. Is this still valid today?

I think it is true in the respect that young people who have grown up with technology are more adept at the mechanical aspects. In a 2017 study, Common Sense Media reports that children age 0–8 years old spend 48 minutes per day on a mobile device, a significant increase from their 2013 study indicating 15 minutes per day, and even more from their 2011 study indicating 5 minutes per day. And with so many schools online in 2020, even as young as pre-schoolers, their next survey will likely show an even greater jump.

With this increase in mobile-device time for very young people, I think it makes sense to assume that someone who has grown up with technology would know the mechanical aspects of how to turn a device on, how to navigate and find what they want, etc. And they can transfer this knowledge to other forms of technology — they don’t need to be taught how to use the features of a new device, they are comfortable and adept at figuring it out themselves.

This is in contrast to some older adults (Digital Immigrants per Prensky) who did not grow up with technology and may struggle with the basics. There’s a satirical commercial that asks “how do we silence our phones” to adults presumed to be taking on their parents personas. Every time my husband sees this commercial, he says “I can’t silence my phone” — and he means it.

However, that mechanical savvy does not equate with young people having any more expertise with digital literacy than older people. Digital literacy encompasses things like searching and verifying information, protecting privacy and understanding digital footprints, respecting people’s ideas and opinions and the dangers of cyberbullying. Digital literacy is what we should be focusing on in education for all ages — young and old.

Instead of Digital Natives and Immigrants, David White and Alison Le Cornu propose the terms Digital Visitors and Digital Residents, which focuses more on the use of the internet, rather than the age of the person using it. At the risk of over-simplifying, Visitors use the internet primarily as a set of tools, while Residents have a robust online persona.

For myself, I fall in the middle of the visitor-resident spectrum, and I feel White captures my presence best when he speaks about “compartmentalizing our online lives”. I keep my work, school, home, and social life pretty separate online — but to be honest, I do the same thing in my “face-to-face life” as well. I don’t know if that’s good or not, but it’s what I do.

Regardless of the label we select for ourselves as technology users, the important thing is not what we call it, but the value we find for our lives.

We often debate about the validity of online friends vs face-to-face friends, so I find it thought-provoking when Gustavo Mesch says “…internet communication creates new forms of social relationships, in which participants are no longer bound by the need to meet others face to face but can expand their social arena by meeting others, located anywhere in the online universe, mind to mind. Thus, virtual relationships are seen as more intimate, richer, and more liberating than offline relationships because they are based on genuine mutual interest rather than the coincidence of physical proximity”.

This is a perspective I hadn’t considered before, and really resonates today in our global pandemic, when many of us cannot see the people we usually see face-to-face. It makes me more carefully consider both my online and my offline relationships. Who do I want to spend my time with? What can I offer others, regardless of their place in the world?

Who do I want to be?

Additional Resources:

Mesch, G.S., 2009. The internet and youth culture. The Hedgehog review, 11(1), p.50.

Prensky, M., 2001. Digital Natives, Digital Immigrants Part 1. On the horizon, 9(5), pp.1–6.

White, David S & Le Cornu, Alison, 2011. Visitors and Residents: A new typology for online engagement. First Monday, 16(9), pp.First Monday, 2011, Vol.16 (9).

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Engaged in lifelong learning.

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