Digital Natives, Digital Immigrants Redux

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For a while now, there has been a lot of weight in the marketing community about the different ways in which younger generations consume information and use technology. Allegedly they like to surf incomprehensible websites, love gadgets, have their own language, listen to the radio, watch the TV and surf at the same time. Older generations, having not grown up with interactive media and the internet were considered to be immigrants, less skilled than the younger digital natives. A good primer for this generational theory is Marc Prensky’s essay which can be found here (PDF).


I have my doubts about this theory because of empirical evidence and research:


  • It is well proven that people consume information and learn in different ways, that difference is the reason why I have good verbal and reasoning skills but can’t draw for toffee. Digital natives assumes that younger generations all have one learning style, a theory not borne out in research
  • I have a friend who is a typical soccer Dad, he uses an iPod and all the usual gadgets that a large professional salary can bring. He has a son who prefers a minidisc player because of the ability to change discs, his son prefers the real world change rather than the iPod scroll wheel
  • Research from Nielsen Norman highlighted the fact that many young people have just as poor a technology skills as older generations before them in their report Teenagers on the Web: Usability Guidelines for Creating Compelling Websites for Teens they found that teenagers do not like some of the fancy sites built for them by web designers preferring a cleaner easy-to-use approach like most other people. Interactivity is good but not if it takes a long time to load or is difficult to use. In addition Nielsen Norman found similar patterns of behaviour with children in an earlier study
  • In an apparently digital world, analogue is making a comeback, vinyl record sales are increasing, digital watches have never been so unpopular. Only where digital provides a comprehensive advantage in usability such as DVD over video does digital win out.