Digital Natives Revisited

As a results of the “introduction to digital environments for learning” (IDEL) module and the research that I have been doing around the topic of digital literacy; I have crossed Marc Prensky’s path many times over; he should also add agent provocateur to his list of roles. It started with my IDEL essay called “Bridging the Generation Gap: A Pathfinder’s Tale” and this has led to?presenting a talk called “The Generation Game: Exploding the myth behind the Net and Google Generations” to a number of organisations.

It’s quite clear that I have issues with Prensky and the whole digital dichotomy of “natives” and “immigrants”. These terms, according to Prensky, were coined by John Perry Barlow (1996, para. 12) in his “declaration of the independence of cyberspace”. Prensky (2001a) and others have popularised (and added more to) these stereotypes to that they are now firmly cemented?into the public domain like some kind of meme. Like Bayne and Ross (2007), I share the following sentiments which I explored in an earlier blog post:

In the current political climate, talk of immigrants and natives inevitably evokes complexities and anxieties around migration, integration, and racial and cultural differences in Western society.

Indeed, Palfrey and Gasser (2008) want to reclaim the term “digital native” to mean something else entirely and suggests that:

…rather than calling Digital Natives a generation – an overstatement, especially in light of the fact that only 1 billion of the 6 billion people in the world even have access to digital technologies – we prefer to think of them as a population … The vast majority of young people born in the world today are not growing up as Digital Natives.

Prensky is rather keen on using a quote attributed to Dr Bruce D. Perry (now of Child Trauma Academy) which goes like “different kinds of experiences lead to different brain structures“. In earlier copies of his now infamous papers, Dr Perry went under the name of “Dr Bruce D. Berry” and it’s taken 8 years and a lot of flack before Prensky finally corrects it. At the heart of Prensky’s work seems to lie a lot of scaremongering rhetoric that’s not backed up with any references for the reader to check his claims against, it’s quite an odd thing to do considering Prensky has 3 Master level degrees behind him. It’s little wonder that Bennett, Maton & Kervin (2008) chastise Prensky and others after him by suggesting that:

…proponents arguing that education must change dramatically to cater for the needs of these digital natives have sparked an academic form of ‘moral panic’ using extreme arguments that have lacked empirical evidence.

This was echoed earlier by McKenzie (2007), using a little more sensationalist language, who accuses Prensky of being “guilty of ‘arcade scholarship’“.

However, Baroness Susan Greenfield, the eminent neuroscientist and current Director of the Royal Institution of Great Britain, comes to Prensky’s aid by suggesting that further research would be needed to see if there might be a link with the three-fold increase of the drug Ritalin over the last 10 years and the increased exposure of young children to unsupervised and lengthy hours in front of a [computer] screen which, in turn, means their young brains would get use to rapid responses (Settle, 2008).

I do agree with Prensky on one thing and that is the need for learning professionals to be able to “speak” using both “legacy” and “future” languages through the lens of “digital literacy” so that students are better prepared and better equiped to deal with the changing nature of their digital worlds.


Barlow, J.P. (1996). A Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace. [online]. Available at: [Accessed 26 January 2009].

Bayne, S. and Ross, J. (2007). The “Digital Native” and “Digital Immigrant”: A Dangerous Opposition. Annual Conference of the Society for Research into Higher Education. December 2007.

Bennett, S., Maton, K., & Kervin, L. (2008). The ‘digital natives’ debate: A critical review of the evidence. British Journal of Educational Technology, 39(5), pp. 775-786. [online]. Available at: [Accessed 26 January 2009].

McKenzie, J., (2007). Digital Nativism, Digital Delusions and Digital Deprivation. From Now On, 17(2). [online]. Available at:? [Accessed 26 January 2008].

Palfrey, J. & Gasser, U. (2008). Born Digital: Understand the First Generation of Digital Natives. New York: Basic Books.

Prensky, M. (2001b). Digital Natives, Digital Immigrants II: Do They Really Think Differently?. On the Horizon, 9(6), NCB University Press.

Prensky, M. (2001a). Digital Natives, Digital Immigrants. On the Horizon, 9(5), NCB University Press.

Settle, M. (2008). Is computer use changing children? BBC News, 15.08.2008. [online]. Available at: [Accessed 26 January 2009].