In a very influential essay that appeared about 15 years ago ("Digital Natives, Digital Immigrants" [pdf]), Mark Prensky coined the term 'digital natives', asserting that "students today are all “native speakers” of the digital language of computers, video games and the Internet" and that, as a result, "today's students think and process information fundamentally differently from their predecessors". In contrast, "[t]hose of us who were not born into the digital world but have, at some later point in our lives, become fascinated by and adopted many or most aspects of the new technology are, and always will be compared to them, Digital Immigrants." While Prensky's views on this topic have evolved over the years and become more nuanced (those interested in his particular views may wish to visit his web site), this original definition and delineation of what it means to be a digital native and a digital immigrant remains quite potent for many people.
There are a number of labels to describe the young people currently studying at school, college and university. They include the digital natives, the net generation, the Google generation or the millenials. All of these terms are being used to highlight the significance and importance of new technologies within the lives of young people (Gibbons, 2007). For some, new technologies have been such a defining feature in the lives of younger generations that they predict a fundamental change in the way young people communicate, socialise, create and learn. They argue that this shift has profound implications for education (e.g. Prensky, 2001a; Gibbons, 2007; Rainie, 2006 and Underwood, 2007). Typically, supporters of this concept view the differences between those who are or who are not digital natives as primarily about when a person was born. This paper will critique and show new evidence against this conception of the digital native as based purely on generational differences. The paper will separate the ‘doing’ from the ‘being’, that is it will propose a number of digital activities (doing) that indicate digital nativeness and then examine which types of people (being) are most likely to demonstrate these characteristics. The paper will show that breadth of use, experience, self-efficacy and education are just as, if not more, important than age in explaining how people become digital natives.