Parents’ Place in the Land of the “Digital Native”

Recently I was talking to a friend about a child being a digital native and she looked at me shocked, “Do they really use that term—digital native? That’s sick.”

Now this thirty-something gal is not living under a rock. Helping to raise her six year-old stepdaughter, she is up against all the parenting challenges of our day, just like every mom.

Because of that, and the fact that “digital native” is at least fifteen years old, I found it quite refreshing she hadn’t heard the term before our conversation.

I was also glad she brought up her negative opinion first. Although I have a strong objection to “digital native” too, I don’t usually bring up my concerns. Call me a coward. But over the past few years, I usually lose trying to convince others that the “digital native” designation is downright offensive.

Let me explain.teaching digital natives

Marc Prensky, a game designer with an MBA from Harvard, coined the term, “digital native” in 2001 to describe the new generation of humans growing up with all things digital. Everyone else, “digital immigrants” were visitors to this new land.

Prensky had a point. He cited compelling statistics. Students were spending fewer than 5,000 hours of their lives reading (assuming that reading refers to books only), but over 10,000 hours playing video games and 20,000 hours watching television. (Now remember this was fifteen years ago. Today kids, ages 8-18, spend an average of eight hours daily with small screens, amassing about 30,000 hours in this crucial ten year period of development.)

But equating time with screens means “He or she is a digital native,” misses the bigger picture.

Who says that and why? And what does it mean for families and schools when kids know more about modern communication devices than their parents? Are all parents over the age of 25 obsolete? Are we unknowingly at last living in Ray Bradbury’s The Veldt?

Explicating the issues in an comprehensive analysis of digital native issues, Professor Apostolos Koutropoulos of the University of Massachusetts writes:

“It is clear that in Prensky’s writings, as well as other digital native authors’ writings, that they expect that these statistics (screen time use) hold true across the board, regardless of your socioeconomic background and your country of origin. What’s clear is that the context isn’t really considered. Who is spending all this time playing video games? Prensky owns a video game company so it may be that what he sees every day is what he thinks of the norm, but that doesn’t mean that this norm is universal reality.”

Kouropoulos goes on to point out:

“Other overgeneralizations put forth by authors like Prensky, is that the digital natives prefer images over text, they prefer games over ‘serious work,’ they function best when networked, digital natives can’t pay attention (or they choose not to!), and finally digital natives have skills, with digital technologies, that they’ve perfected….Do those general skills transfer over to the academic side? Could I seamlessly take my skill of posting facebook updates and apply this to an academic context without the help of a more experienced ‘digital immigrant’”?

Other studies show that Koutropoulos’ concerns are warranted. “Most children’s everyday uses of the Internet are characterized not by spectacular forms of innovation and creativity, but by relatively mundane forms of information retrieval.”

Nothing is more important than parents being models and yes, even teachers, for their children in this digital world. Daily decisions parents make determine the quality of our social order now and in the future. This is not hyperbole, this is scientific fact. If we truly understand brain science, we must logically conclude that parents play the primary role in growing or damaging their children’s development—since they are making the primary decisions that will most significantly affect the child’s brain growth for 18 years and beyond. Healthy adults create a healthy society.

So given this baseline, how do parents accomplish optimal brain development for their kids when most of their peers and the industry culture, as well, tells them “digital natives” learn differently and need special handling since they know more than you about all thing digital?

Two Thoughts Come to Mind:

Maintain Our Primary Role as Models and Teachers

While most parents older than 25 will seek help from their kids with tech stuff, we can’t make the mistake of giving up our parental authority because kids know something about computers or social media that we don’t. Teaching our kids appropriate uses such as non-violent video game play and social media etiquette and net safety are parents’ responsibilities. A tech-savvy kid is no excuse for a peripheral parent.

Question the Industry Culture

When someone who owns a video game company makes a big deal about kids learning best from video games, then we may have what used to be called “conflict of interest” and “propaganda thinking” at work. Of course, kids can learn from video game playing. But what are they learning and how does what they learn transfer to other skills they will need and want as self-actualized adults? How does what they are learning make them a better person? Only loving parents can answer that.

It certainly also helps us maintain our place in the land of digital natives when we listen to our parental gut wisdom since it’s usually right on. Check out Marc Prensky’s latest 2016 “stand” on digital native. He is quoted as saying, “The most important thing to realize is that this (digital native term) is a metaphor. It’s not a distinction or a brand, it’s extremely fluid.”

But then, you knew that 15 years ago—didn’t you?

Copyright, Gloria DeGaetano, 2016. All rights reserved.


Buckingham, D. (2006). Is there a digital generation? In D. Buckingham & R. Willett (Eds.), Digital generations: Children, young people and new media (pp. 1–13). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum, p. 10.

Prensky, M. (2001a). Digital Natives, Digital Immigrants. On the Horizon, 9(5) Retrieved from %20Digital%20Natives,%20Digital%20Immigrants%20-%20Part1.pdf

Prensky, M. (2001b). Digital Natives, Digital Immigrants: Do they really think different? On the Horizon, 9(6), 1-6. Retrieved from %20Digital%20Natives,%20Digital%20Immigrants%20-%20Part2.pdf