Digital Natives

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Session organizers: John Palfrey and Urs Gasser

There are a lot of myths floating through the ether about how young people use new technologies. Does it make sense to talk about a distinctive global culture of young people -- Digital Natives -- who have only known life in a digital age? This session will focus on what research does and doesn't teach us about what this population of young people are up to? What are the great things that we wish to foster, like creativity using digital tools and new forms of civic activism? What are the things that we should be worried about, from safety to information overload? This session will explore recent research at the Berkman Center and elsewhere on the way that some young people use technologies differently -- or the same as -- those who are older.

Some myths that we may explore for the day:

Myth #1 The online world presents a wholly new and completely different set of issues for youth we must address.

Many of the issues cropping up with children and young people playing, being, and living online – from cyberbullying, to information evaluation, to online civic engagement - are the same as age-old offline issues, however filtered through a new medium with new possibilities, and new considerations.

Myth #2 Digital Natives are wasting time online.

Young people are learning, gaining skills, and becoming collaborative, critical and informed members of society through their online and digital engagements.

Myth #3 Young people online are hugely susceptible to falling victim to sexual predators.

Digital natives are very aware of the issue of predators sexual online, and even more aware of how to avoid this danger. In fact, one of our most consistent findings among young people across ages and socio-economic groups was their ability in using a variety of strategies to avoid unwanted contact with strangers online.

Myth #4 Digital Natives don’t care about privacy.

New technological affordances have meant that for most digital natives, sharing via digital tools has become the norm – but this does not mean they don’t care about privacy. Privacy concerns vary largely among young people based on age, education, and if repercussions of privacy compromise have been experienced. “Privacy from whom?” is an important question here – hugely differing attitudes are prevalent in regards to sharing with friends, strangers, service providers, and government entities.

Myth # 5 Digital Natives don’t care about copyright.

Copyright is a complicated and scary word – for most digital natives, a notion just vaguely related to something illegal. Young people are hugely lacking in knowledge regarding issues of legality concerning copyrighted content online. While for sure the norm among young people is access for free, many are not indifferent to the rights of creators.

Myth #6 All digital natives are experts at navigating online spaces and tech-savy creators.

While the vast majority of young Americans have access to technologies, the knowledge of digital tools, online spaces, and skills in this arena widely vary. While socio-economic and access to education are strong factors in determining digital natives’ skill level, so is their social group: a major motivator for young people to create online is to do so as part of a online or offline community.

Myth #7 Digital Natives are all politically engaged on the internet.

Most digital natives are not politically engaged, online or off. We did not meet many young people taking part in civic activities online. But the potentials for engagement are great in the digital space due to two major factors: (1) digital natives understand their active role in society, and that their voices are and will be heard (2) online spaces are extremely fluid – based on networks, a single space accommodates for entertainment, socializing, learning, and political engagement - in doing so, networks readily draw those young people who may otherwise be uninspired politically to begin to engage.

Myth #8 Digital Natives behavior is outside the realm of understanding for parents, teachers, and other digital immigrants.

Promises and perils online are often rooted in the same core issues and causes as their offline equivalents. Parents and teachers have much knowledge and wisdom to help guide young people as they move about digital space. However, the medium is different, and it is important for those in the Digital Natives’ lives to learn about the online spaces young people are living in, just as they do about the real-life spaces.

Myth 9 Digital Natives are a homogeneous body Current initiatives on online child safety assume that digital natives are a homogeneous body - accordingly, we rely on benchmarks of 'competency' based on the 'ideal prudent child.' Recognizing that digital natives have significant implications for the way we educate, engage and empower young people. More importantly, we need to rethink whether the best interests principle or competency rhetoric continues to be relevant in the digital environment.