Not only are there multiple different definitions for digital native status, there is not a great deal of consensus regarding the age of this group. Although some mark those born in or after the year 2000 as digital natives, others have added the current crop of college students and young professionals to this group. Mark Prensky, writing in 2001, already felt that the students of that time—kindergarten to university—we considered digital natives. Needless to say, there’s no consensus regarding the age of digital natives.
Part of the uncertainty regarding the age of digital natives is likely tied to the nebulous nature of generational divisions. The confusion may also have roots in the fact that geography and socioeconomic factors present individuals with different levels of access to technology. In other words, students in different regions encounter different technologies at different times. Some do not encounter some tools and programs at all.
Another issue with the idea of the digital native is that it suggests that all students take to technology naturally. It assumes that all students have experience with technology. Reality has not quite matched up with this assumption. In fact, it has prompted some to wonder if the digital native is actually nothing more than a myth. Here is one strong case against using the term. Another possible stance is using the term, but questioning ideas about digital natives.
Some sources portray digital natives as being opponents of digital immigrants—those who knew the world before the digital age. Setting up teachers and students as being at odds with one another is not likely to become a constructive mode of thinking.
The notion of the digital native serves as a way to understand and begin talking about the rapid spread and integration of technology into human societies. Although the term is not always accurate or certain, it can still a useful way to begin conversations about generational gaps, technology and education. Even if the digital native is something of a myth, it is worth remembering that myths remain a key way that we explain and discuss the world in which we live.
Catelyn Cantrell is pursuing a master’s degree in English Education at University of Florida while taking steps toward a teaching career. She also holds a BA in Medieval Studies and Geography from UF. Her professional interests include world literature, teaching composition, education technology and project-based learning.