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Digital Native vs Digital Citizen? Examining a Dangerous Stereotype

Mary Beth Hertz

HS Art/Tech Teacher in Philadelphia, PA
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There are a lot of dangerous stereotypes out there. "Asian students are always better at math." "Boys are always better at sports." And perhaps the most dangerous of all: "The current generation are all digital natives."

It is easy to see the danger in the first two stereotypes. They tend to influence the way teachers, parents, peers and society in general classify, justify and treat whichever group is represented by the stereotype. I'm not sure enough people give enough thought to the third, equally dangerous, stereotype.

The Myth

There are many people I come in contact with on a regular basis who assume that any child under the age of 18, were they given a computer, would automatically know how to use it. Just recently, an experiment was conducted by the nonprofit organization One Laptop Per Child. OLPC dropped Android tablets into a remote Ethiopian village and were thrilled to find that the children, without an adult teaching them, figured out how to use the tablet, and used the apps to learn the English alphabet and basic literacy skills. In addition, they figured out how to disable some of the controls placed on the devices.

To add to the complexity, there are varying degrees of "using a computer." It's one thing to use a tablet computer and its apps to learn basic literacy skills; but learning to create, read critically, use online content responsibly and be a respectful digital citizen are not always skills that can be learned without the guidance of a teacher of some kind (notice I did not say "adult"). The minute that we place a device in the hands of a child, it does not make them a digital native.

Indeed, the OLPC experiment debunked the popular myth that students of this generation are "digital natives" because they grew up with computers and technological devices.

Explicit Teaching

If I were to ask any of my students in grade three or above to define a digital citizen, they could easily do so. They know that they are digital citizens and what that means. To hear a fourth-grader explain what copyright means -- and then go on to explain why it even exists -- is a beautiful thing!

By fifth grade, my students will hopefully be better at doing research because they will understand why it's not OK to copy, and they will have the skills to avoid doing it themselves. This is not, as the stereotype might suggest, because they were born that way. These students have been explicitly taught what it means to be a digital citizen through dialogue, reflection and practice.

Breaking Down Stereotypes

Rather than stereotyping our students as "digital natives," we should be calling them "digital citizens." Being a digital citizen is complex. These days, digital citizenship encompasses everything we do in every aspect of our lives. With students maintaining personal blogs, creating their own YouTube channels and engaging in online gaming, learning, creation and you-name-it communities, it is imperative that they know and understand their rights and responsibilities when it comes to content creation and consumption, as well as how they conduct themselves socially online.

Sure, we can place a tablet in the hands of children who have never seen a package label or a sign, and they will learn on their own. But what happens when and if those children become connected to the larger, global online community? It is not guaranteed that they will be ready to navigate etiquette and intellectual property rights on their own. It is dangerous for us to assume that there is such a thing as a "digital native." If we replace the stereotype with the label "digital citizen," we will better reach our students and serve their needs, and we will stop making excuses and dangerous assumptions about what they do and don't know about using technology.

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Katelyn Moule's picture
Katelyn Moule
Fourth grade classroom teacher in Ellington, CT

Many children, at very young ages, are able to use their parents' iPhones and tablets. They understand how to turn it on, open files, play games and take pictures, but that is as far as their understanding goes. I agree that teachers must show the students appropriate ways to utilize the technology that is at their fingertips. Last year, I had my students create PowerPoint presentations about a chosen state in the northeast. They were completely oblivious to the correct way to research a topic, and they did not know about the PowerPoint software. Many adults would walk by my class in the computer lab and joke that they should be able to do this already. This assumption that the students should be tech savvy is silly. Yes they are more comfortable around technology and yes they catch on faster, but this does not mean that they are masters with it. I enjoy not only using technology in the classroom, but also teaching my students about how they can use it to help their own learning.

Dave Crusoe's picture


Thanks for your helpful post! Yes, the stereotype of 'digital native' has indeed penetrated language and thought. It's a compelling story and, to put it mildly, "it just makes sense" to frame how young people grow with technological tools.

Building on what you say, however, education and media research shows that young people possess a significantly mixed, varied and variable set of skills. For example, young people rapidly develop a sense of what the internet is - but only up to a certain, non-technical level (see: ).

Research about children's understanding of web search and information literacy and fluency certainly shows the same.

So the story is mixed and, as you say, reframing the story to capture the skills and competences required by a digital citizen is a great & needed step.

Now, on the next logical question - the educator's question - Just what does one need to learn to be a digital citizen?

--Dave / PLML

Mister Norris's picture
Mister Norris
ICT Specialist

A digital native is "a person who was born during or after the general introduction of digital technologies" according to Wikipedia. I think this is a great description of a digital native. You see this when kids are more familiar with iPads than magazines and expect magazines to act digitally (for example: This is a true digital native.

However, when we assume a digital native "has a greater understanding of its concepts" (according to Wikipedia), we are wrong, these children, teenagers and adults still need explicit instructions on how to utilize technology as a tool for their learning and life. It's important not to get these two things mixed up.

jesse's picture

I would consider myself a digital person, but only because I am living in a digital world. The fact that I have an endless supply of New York Fashion Week pictures at the click of an app, or can set reminders to "print my homework," are things that I could not picture college without. Coming from the bustling city of New York City, I have grown up intrigued with fast-paced city life, as well as pop culture, and going to a university, which was so far removed, from the epicenter of everything, my iPhone has been an irreplaceable device. I think that teachers do look at technology as more of a distraction rather than something that could easily enhance our learning. However, their worries are warranted, as most students who take their smartphones to class, sit on them while disregarding whatever the teacher has planned for that day. I think that if teachers encouraged technology more often, such as taking polls in class through our computers or cell phones, or made use of the canvas discussion boards more often while in class, students would be less inclined to sneak their phones underneath their desks. I also love when teachers incorporate videos and interactive websites into their daily lesson plans instead of making videos strictly part of homework. In addition to all of this, I think that using technology helps classes to stay current instead of just using outdated textbook examples. This would keep me much more engaged during class and less likely to resort to my phone.

Kristy Godbout's picture

I just wrote a post about how I was wrestling with both the terms digital native and digital immigrants. What you said about, "It is dangerous for us to assume that there is such a thing as a digital native," really resonated with me. I also feel it is negative to use the term digital immigrant to imply that we have moved from place to another only to remain stagnant and incapable of educating the "natives." I would rather think of all of us, as a collective body of global citizens "migrating" and learning together. You are so right that we need to shift our terminology to global citizens.

Johnny Herlihy's picture

Good parenting in digital age impact report available to you FREE OF CHARGE - because every parent must read it! This report will give you 6 POWERFUL INSIGHTS into how 'the device knowledge gap' is impacting children and parents.

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