The Rise of Digital Natives

If you were raised on Cartoon Network and trap rap, your sense of reality is fundamentally unlike any other in human history.
November 5, 2018
6 mins read

I cannot remember a day where the internet was not in my life. I am not entirely sure how to feel about this fact, but regardless of my indecision, it’s just the truth.

To be honest, compared to the majority of Generation Z, I’m fairly reserved when it comes to my internet lifestyle. I don’t use any social media accounts and I’ve only perused through 4chan forums a handful of times. Plus, online multiplayer games do not interest me in the slightest. You can call me old-fashioned — I’d personally call myself indifferent — but, to me, the internet is more of an essential tool than a communal platform to mingle about with the rest of the world. Nevertheless, in the grand scheme of the universe, I am a digital native.

No, “digital native” is not the title of an upcoming William Gibson novel or the newest entry into the “Matrix” franchise; rather, the term is used to describe anyone born during the digital age who does not have a point of reference to a time when some form of the internet did not exist. The term is mainly derived from an article written by author Marc Prensky in 2001 titled, “Digital Natives, Digital Immigrants.”

In the article, Prensky discusses a specific disconnect that digital immigrants — people born before the emergence and mass consumption of the internet — experience when attempting to interact with, or educate, digital natives. This conflict originates from the fact that the former group was born into a time where the internet did not exist and subsequently “immigrated” into a new age. On the other hand, digital natives did not undergo this same type of dissonance, considering that the current technological era is their only point of reference, and in a sense, thrive in a state of blissful unawareness as a result.

When the definition of the term was called into question in September 2017, Prensky elaborated on the context in which digital natives should be used when applied to tech-savvy young people, stating that the term is largely a “metaphor” and “not about age, but about profound shifts in cultural attitudes.”

The writer went on, adding, “Young people today are part of a new ‘digitally enabled’ culture which has given them very different perspectives than the generation(s) that came before them.” Moreover, according to Prensky, the perspectives that greatly differ between generations include technology, privacy and socialization.

To a certain extent, Prensky is correct. For many members of Generation Z, the internet is an extension of reality, with the delicate barrier that separates real-life and internet culture growing blurrier by the day. The web is an entity that, despite its intangibility, creates a conduit for online dealings to leak out into the real world. When Tinder and Twitter are merely a thumb tap and swipe away, cyberspace choices can lead to in-your-face consequences if you’re not careful.

Then again, why is so much importance placed on the generational gap in the first place? Sure, past generations didn’t watch compilations of people brutalizing each other on Worldstar or send hateful messages to celebrities simply because they didn’t enjoy their fictional character in a film, but their youthful years held its own brand of societal nonsense and personal obstacles, some of which remain rampant in 2018.

On the whole, traits like confusion, stress and anxiety are not afflictions only applicable to kids in the internet age, but rather are symptoms typically synonymous with the awkwardly horrifying stage of life that is adolescence. As such, at their core, millennials share more in common with Gen X or the Baby Boomers than some would have you believe. Their understanding of culture may differ significantly, but the foremost factor separating me and my dad when he was 20 years old is the internet, and when examined from that viewpoint, the generational gap feels distinctly trite.

Remember this: No one expects to get old. One of these days, you might find yourself in the role of the irritable senior citizen shaking your finger at the misguided youth, and when you do, your title of digital native really won’t matter as much as it did — mostly because it never mattered in the first place. Despite your best efforts, you’ll probably end up on the outside looking in, lost in the remnants of the old world watching all the children run about plugged into their VR headsets and spewing slang that hardly sounds human.

But, as you sit on your porch with your cup of cold coffee in hand and collection of stray cats circling around your feet, you will recall that you were just like them all those years ago. Then, you’ll recollect on how it all worked out in the end and smile.

Jonathan Christian, Northwest Vista College

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Jonathan Christian

Northwest Vista College

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