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The natives are not digital.

IT IS NOW a commonplace that “young people” are absolute whizzes at technology and the interwebby highway thing. A commonplace, that is, mainly among people of a certain age (ie over 40) who think the kids know their way round it like a black-cab driver knows his way round London (north of the river only, of course – but on the internets there is no south). They see the youth walking around with their ears plugged into tiny music players, thumbs twitching away on mobiles. They hear stories of them watching viral videos on Youtube and organising parties on Facebook and think: these kids are really technologically advanced.

The journos keep turning this stuff out; the politicians likewise. They love stories about hackers (even though the people they’re talking about don’t call themselves that). They, and scientists who ought to know better, opine about neurological changes wrought by playing online games and using computers to talk with their mates. They worry that social network “friends” are not real friends and the kids are living in some kind of cyber fantasy universe. Attention spans may be getting shorter – but that’s because the kids are networked, they can multitask in a way us oldies cannot comprehend. Maybe their thumbs are growing bigger, too.

They are, as one pundit described them, “digital natives”. They grew up with this stuff and they’re plugged in. Schools teach them the arcana of IT. They’re natives of world wide webdom.

Except they’re not.

I asked my 14-year-old grandson what social media he and his friends use, apart from the various gaming sites. It came down to Youtube, Facebook and Skype. Older groups are also into music sites, particularly those from which they can download songs, and they’re pretty cool with buying other stuff online.

With regard to my own undergraduate university students I can tell you this: most of them don’t send emails and have to learn how to write them; they are not used to using search engines; they rarely use the internet on their own initiative to find free educational material; they don’t make videos to upload to Youtube and similar sites, despite the fact that they can do so easily with their mobile phones (and every student has a better phone than me); they don’t listen to podcasts; they don’t read blogs or have their own; they don’t realise that ordering your files into folders might be a good idea; they haven’t heard of the disk cleaning utility to keep your hard drive uncluttered; they don’t follow news or current affairs on the web (or anywhere, to be honest); they don’t even watch TV for free on the web; they don’t use Twitter; and, despite spending years learning IT at school, they’re not particularly good at using word processing software or design packages.

Marc Prensky.

Marc Prensky.

SINCE MARC PRENSKY described his “digital natives” over a decade ago, many people have said the same thing: it’s nonsense. It’s a catchy idea and an equally memorable phrase. When young people are texting each other, or are online, playing multiplayer games, sending and receiving messages, photos, having conversations, they’re indulging in that most human of activities: they’re communicating. They’re just being human. It’s just that they can do it in ways we didn’t have till very recently. The technology that makes it easier for them to do this (and buy stuff) is irrelevant and, generally, they’re not interested in what else it can do.

All of which may reassure some of the digitally-challenged among us. And the fact that our kids’ thumbs are not actually growing bigger.

– Michael Blackburn.

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