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  • Writer's picturemartinthomasemo

The ‘Digital Native’ Myth: A Modern-day Tech Yeti Story

Updated: Apr 15

The persistent myth of the 'Digital Native' is unhelpful and potentially harmful for businesses, especially in the Software as a Service (SaaS) industry, where customers must effectively use digital technologies.

The 'Digital Native' theory was proposed by Mark Prensky in 2001, suggesting that individuals born after 1980 were ‘digital natives’ and inherently more adept at using digital technologies due to growing up surrounded by them. Conversely, those born before this arbitrary date of 1980 were labelled 'Digital Immigrants' and were presumed to struggle with digital technology and be reluctant to adopt it. However, this oversimplified view has been widely debunked due to its lack of empirical evidence to support the theory, and failure to account for individual differences in life experiences, access to technology, and knowledge levels (Kirschner & De Bruyckere, 2017; Koutropoulos, 2011; Marshall, 2016; Pierard & Lines, 2022). For example, in my doctoral research conducted in 2020 with high school music teachers in New Zealand, I found no correlation between age and digital technology use (Emo 2024). Younger teachers did not exhibit higher confidence in digital technology, nor did older teachers struggle more with technical issues.

...teachers, educational administrators, and politicians/policy makers believe in the existence of yeti-like creatures populating present day schools namely digital natives ... though there is no credible evidence supporting their existence.

(Kirschner & De Bruyckere, 2017, p. 136).

For SaaS businesses, even unconsciously perpetuating the myth of the 'Digital Native' in throw away comments can be detrimental. Believing in this myth can predispose users to failure or frustration before they even begin using digital technology solely due to their birth year. This belief undermines autonomy and adds unnecessary barriers to technology integration.

For any organisation or company that relies on digital technology as a central part of its operations, debunking the 'Digital Native' myth is crucial. I believe that addressing this misconception and summarising the actual research that disproves it is crucial for any organisation heavily reliant on digital technology. This clarification is essential for fostering a more informed approach to technology adoption and integration.

Misconstruing research findings is not uncommon and extends beyond the realm of digital technology. Addressing such misconceptions, such as the misapplication of research on 'learning styles' (a topic for a future blog post, perhaps), is a vital step in promoting informed decision-making and effective practices in various sectors, including education.

By addressing and dispelling the 'Digital Native' myth, businesses can empower their customers and employees to approach digital technologies with an open mind, free from preconceived notions that may hinder their effective use and adoption.

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