Natives or immigrants in the World Wide Web? On Digital Natives and Digital Immigrants

Ever since the internet has become an integral part of life for many of us, scientists have been discussing its impact on the way we perceive the world, our thought processes, our social behaviour, how we communicate – the list is seemingly endless. But the fact remains that the internet has divided the global population into two camps that previously did not exist: Digital Natives and Digital Immigrants. 

These two terms were coined by the American writer and e-learning expert Marc Prensky, who established the distinction between Digital Natives and Digital Immigrants in an essay published in 2001, and who used these metaphors to illustrate clearly how the digital age had changed people forever.

Native or immigrant?

Prensky defines Digital Natives as people who have grown up with computers and the internet, video games and smartphones, tablets and social media; people who were born into a digital world and can find their way around it with ease. He contrasts these Digital Natives with Digital Immigrants – the name Prensky gives to those who were introduced to digital technology as adults.

He describes the way of thinking and learning of Digital Natives as follows: ‘Digital Natives are used to receiving information really fast. They like to parallel process and multi-task. They prefer their graphics before their text (...). They prefer random access (…). They function best when networked. They thrive on instant gratification and frequent rewards. They prefer games to ‘serious’  work.’  By contrast, Prensky says, Digital Immigrants think ‘slowly, step-by-step, one thing at a time, individually, and, above all, seriously’.

As a consequence, he not only called upon Digital Immigrants to learn to use digital media themselves, but also demanded that education systems be adapted to the way of thinking of Digital Natives. Sure enough, along with e-commerce and social media, new forms of learning are providing evidence of the dramatic social change that has come about through digitisation, for example game-based learning, webinars and MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses).

Digital Natives and Digital Immigrants around the world

As a study conducted by the Georgia Institute of Technology demonstrated in October 2013, however, it is a myth that young people today spend all their time online or have become internet addicts. The facts show that only 30 per cent of the global population between the ages of 15 and 24 years have been online for five years or more. The largest number of Digital Natives are in South Korea (99.6 per cent), Japan, the USA, Finland, Denmark and the Netherlands, the lowest number in Timor-Leste (less than 1 per cent), Myanmar, Sierra Leone and other African and Asian countries, ‘many of which are suffering from conflict and/or have very low internet availability’.

But the study also showed that internet use in developing countries has grown to such an extent since 2008 that the number of Digital Natives is set to double by 2017. One example of a developing country in which the internet is booming is Rwanda – a country still grappling with poverty and the consequences of the genocide of 1994. With few resources and little industry, Rwanda is investing heavily in the internet as a way of redeveloping its infrastructures. President Kagame sees in digital services and information technology a market with huge potential for the young people of Rwanda. And in places where there is as yet no internet access, an IT bus will be used to provide training and a network.

Digital Native from the heart: Philipp Riederle

Digital Natives think and communicate differently to Digital Immigrants, which often causes misunderstanding between one generation and the other. Philipp Riederle has made a virtue of this necessity: since the age of 13, the 19-year-old has been producing blogs and podcasts in which he introduces new apps and gives accounts of his experiences with iPhone and iPad. At the age of 18, he published his book ‘Who we are and what we want: a Digital Native explains his generation’. Now a management consultant, he also provides advice to Digital Immigrants in companies on the philosophy of his generation and is in regular demand by the press and media.

Discussion about Digital Natives and Digital Immigrants in the Community

Would you describe yourself as a Digital Native or a Digital Immigrant? How many people have online access where you live? At what age do people there use the internet and to what extent? How easy is it for people in your immediate environment to get access to the internet? Discuss with us and other alumni about Participating in the Global Digital Society, Digital Natives and Digital Immigrants in the Community group ‘Digital Society’.


Author: Kristina Wydra

March 2014

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