The mystery of the digital natives' existence: Questioning the validity of the Prenskian metaphor
First Monday

The mystery of the digital natives' existence: Questioning the validity of the Prenskian metaphor by Pasqualina Sorrentino

Net Generation (Tapscott, 2009, 1998; Oblinger and Oblinger, 2005), Generation Y (Zhao and Liu, 2008; Halse and Mallinson, 2009), Millennials (Howe and Strauss, 2000), Homo Zappiens (Veen, 2003) and i-Generation (Rosen, 2010). The labels used to describe the generation of young people and their relation with technology are numerous. Over the past few years, one of the notions, which might have had more echoes among parents, teachers, and policy-makers is those of “digital natives” introduced in 2001 by Mark Prensky. The metaphor has had enduring influence on how the educational system perceives students and technology. Most scholars do not like it, for various reasons. Among other problems, the term implies that technological abilities are innate rather than taught and learned. The aim of this contribution is not to join the existing debate about the existence of digital native but to examine if there is any empirical evidence to support the use of that metaphor in the first place, questioning its usefulness to depict particular generations of young people.






Mario Ruoppolo: I felt seasick, in fact.
Pablo Neruda: Because ...
Mario Ruoppolo: I can’t explain it. I felt like ... like a boat tossing around on those words.
Pablo Neruda: Like a boat tossing around on my words? Do you know what you’ve done, Mario?
Mario Ruoppolo: No, what?
Pablo Neruda: You’ve invented a metaphor. Yes, you have!
Mario Ruoppolo: Really? But it doesn’t count because I didn’t mean to.
Pablo Neruda: Meaning to is not important. Images arise spontaneously.

Il Postino (The Postman)

The rapid and constant development of digital technologies and systems in our everyday lives is transforming the way these technologies are consumed by all generations. In Growing up digital: The rise of the net generation, Tapscott (1998) describes the way digital-generational revolution is transforming society and early introduces the concept of a Net generation. This is supposed to be a new, tech-savvy generation, which thinks differently, has strong self-esteem, and has a personality that is characterised by curiosity, self-reliance, and assertiveness, and is accepting of diversity [1]. He writes:

This wave of youth coincides with the digital revolution which is transforming all facets of our society. Together these two factors are producing a generation which is not just a demographic bulge but a wave of social transformation [...] And at this moment, tens of millions of N-Geners around the world are taking over the steering wheel. This distinction is at the heart of the new generation. For the first time ever, children are taking control of critical elements of a communications revolution. [2]

In 2001, Mark Prensky warned about an apocalyptic generational schism:

Today’s students have not just changed incrementally from those of the past, nor simply changed their slang, clothes, body adornments, or styles, as has happened between generations previously. A really big discontinuity has taken place. One might even call it a “singularity” — an event which changes things so fundamentally that there is absolutely no going back. This so-called “singularity” is the arrival and rapid dissemination of digital technology in the last decades of the twentieth century. [3]

Prensky coined the metaphors “digital natives” and “digital immigrants” to encapsulate many people’s attitudes to new technologies. According to Prensky, to the “digital natives” generation belong people who grew up in the digital age and who “are all native speakers of the digital language of computers, video games and the Internet” [4], while the “digital immigrants” are represented by those who started to use the language of new technologies at a later stage in life and “like all immigrants, some [learn] better than others — to adapt to their environment, they always retain, to some degree, their ‘accent,’ that is, their foot in the past.” [5]

According to Prensky, compared to previous generations, digital natives have a number of characteristics. They

  • are better at multitasking and parallel processing;
  • learn interactively;
  • prefer random access to information, using hypertext;
  • rebuff “ serious work” and prefer computer games;
  • prefer graphics before text;
  • need to be networked [6].

Prensky’s digital natives and digital immigrants dichotomy is not the only one to revive and reinforce the old “generation gap” cliché. The debate about digital natives is heated (Bennett, et al., 2008). Scholars do not agree on the labels employed to identify this new generation, nor on their exact age range. In the last few decades, a growing number of competing terms claim to identify the present generation of students who have been brought up in a digitally rich environment. The most common labels in circulation are: Net Generation (Tapscott, 2009, 1998; Oblinger and Oblinger, 2005), Generation Y (Zhao and Liu, 2008; Halse and Mallinson, 2009), Millennials (Howe and Strauss, 2000) and Generation C (Duncan-Howell and Lee, 2007). The same generation of young people are sometimes labeled as the IM Generation referring to the Instant Message Generation (Lenhart, et al., 2001), the Gamer Generation (Carstens and Beck, 2005) in relation to video games, and even Homo Zappiens (Veen, 2003) for their capacity to control information streams. Numerous newer terms such as the Google Generation (Rowlands, et al., 2008) or the i-Generation (Rosen, 2010) are used to describe a further generational change, linked to the technological evolution.

Tapscott (2009) divides people into four generation groups depending on their birth year. First, there are the Baby Boomers, those born between 1946 and 1964. As technology users Baby Boomers are people that grew up with televisions and therefore are the early generation of modern technology users. The next generation is the Generation X or Baby Bust which covers people born from the early to mid-60s through to the start of the 1980s. Their generation has similarities with the Generation Y concerning computer and Internet skills. The third generation is the Generation Y, also known as the Net Generation or the Millenials, who were born from the early 1980s through to the turn of the Millennium. This group grew up fully surrounded by digital media technology and services that were available for the majority of people. The latest generation starts from 1998 and it is still ongoing, it is called Generation Next or Generation Z (Tapscott, 2009). This generation has no memory of a world without smart devices and broadband internet.

Each definition mentioned above is marginally different and differs in the way it is used by scholars, but in general, the terms are used interchangeably. All these labels given to people born since 1980, as highlighted by Palfrey and Gasser (2008), make one thing very clear: the current generation of young people is born in a digital world in which they are seen as more at home than their parents, educators, and future employers. For the first time in history, young people are assumed to be more competent than adults in managing and living with new technologies that have become integral to everyday life (Tapscott, 1998).

Since its introduction, the digital native/digital immigrant metaphor has become the defining metaphor among teachers for the role of technology in education. It marked out a powerful new way of thinking about generational differences that were creating an impass in debates about media literacy education (Bennett, et al., 2008). However, can someone be automatically gifted with an innate understanding of technology? Is there any empirical evidence supporting the assumption that the younger generation is more tech-savvy or good at multi-tasking than older generations? Consequently, is the metaphor digital natives/immigrants useful?

Judd (2018) carried out a study trying to assess general and academic interest in and use of the terms digital natives, net generation and millennials over time. The period of interest spanned the years 1998 to September 2017. The data were collected primarily from Google Trends (, Google’s main search tool (, the Google Scholar academic search tool ( and included some content analysis of academic resources discovered through Google Scholar. Although references to digital natives and the related terms net generation and millennials in educational technology journals has declined somewhat, public and general academic search interest in these labels — and presumably the ideas related to them — continues to grow.

This study is a valuable illustration of the enduring influence of metaphors on our society. They are tools that tap into a person’s existing thoughts, emotions, and beliefs that are internalized, creating a picture of what the person is already thinking, feeling, and believing. Metaphoric language is important in communication and cognition because it helps to clear, reflect and boost different ways of making sense of particular aspects of our lives. This central function of metaphor is itself often defined as “framing” (Lakoff, 2001; Semino, 2008; Ritchie, 2013).

The goal of this contribution is to unpack the digital natives/digital immigrants’ metaphor frame in order to observe its intrinsic power to clarify or mask aspects of the “digital divide” debate. Furthermore, I will investigate the validity of that metaphor looking at the empirical evidence of this popular dichotomy and its implication for digital literacy and learning.




The digital generation gap and “moral panic”: Implications for education

In Born digital, Palfrey and Gasser (2008) devote a chapter to the learners and learning styles and argue that “the educational establishment is utterly confused about what to do about the impact of technology on learning.” [7]. The proponents of the digital generation gap claim that not only do the younger people have sophisticated ICT (information and communication technology) skills, but also that through the exposure to these technologies, their “brains have physically changed” and they have developed new cognitive capacities, learning styles, and way of thinking [8]. The new learning behaviors are said to include

“fluency in multiple media, valuing each for the types of communication, activities, experiences, and expressions it empowers; learning based on collectively seeking, sieving, and synthesizing experiences rather than individually locating and absorbing information from a single best source; active learning based on experience that includes frequent opportunities for reflection; expression through non-linear associational webs of representations rather than linear stories; and co-design of learning experiences personalized to individual needs and preferences.” [9]

According to some commentators, the generational shift caused by a process of technological change brought an urgent and necessary change in education. “Technology has changed the Net Generation, just as it is now changing higher education” [10] and the learning system should adapt to these “more technology-driven, spontaneous, and multi-sensory” youngsters (Prensky, 2001a, 2001b; McCrindle, 2006). The proponents of the digital divide’s existence argue that younger generations own different tools and way of processing and using information that do not meet well with the current educational system. Educators are required to modify their methods to the “neomillenial” learning style (Dede, 2005a, 2005b) and to adapt to a new technology-based educational trend to fit the needs of their technologically experienced students (Prensky, 2001a, 2001b; Oblinger, 2003; Long, 2005; Barnes, et al., 2007; Thompson, 2007). However, the supposed digital gap between students and educators seems to be not empirical based. In a survey comparing the two generations’ technology use and attitudes, Margaryan, et al. (2011) found no evidence to support previous claims suggesting that current generation of students adopt radically learning styles, exhibit new forms of literacy or use digital technologies in sophisticated ways. According Bennett, et al., Prensky’s model created a kind of unfounded “academic moral panic” [11], an instinctive reaction to the awareness that a kind of revolution is taking place or has taken place already and they are urged to adapt to it. Authors borrow from Stanley Cohen (1972) the notion of “moral panic” in order to describe an issue of public concern. Moral panic occurs when people become alarmed in response to a problem perceived as menacing societal values and norms. According to Bennett and colleagues, the popular debate around digital natives/immigrants promotes such panic:

Arguments are often couched in dramatic language, proclaim a profound change in the world and pronounce stark generational differences. These characteristics are exemplified in the [...] quote from Prensky (2001a), but are also evident throughout much of the digital natives literature. [12]

Even if many proponents seem to take for granted the technological savviness of this generation of students, other researchers have started to question this idea of expertise based on date of birth, because “there is enough evidence that real life is a bit more complicated than Prensky proposes.” [13] According to Herring (2008), images of young people, new media, and their experiences are depicted through an adult lens, which may not mirror the reality of the situation.

The main arguments against the existence of a digital divide are:

  • The notion is simplistic and superficial since it sets the digital natives in a superior position compared to the digital immigrants and it does not take into account the severe inequalities that might exist within the generations (e.g., Facer and Furlong, 2001; Brown and Czerniewicz, 2010)
  • There is enough evidence that young people are not completely confident with ICTs as postulated (Hope Cheong, 2008).

Starting from investigating the mental images created by his metaphors, the following sections will look for the empirical evidence of Prensky’s dichotomy and will question the validity of the digital native /digital immigrant divide.

Digital natives: A deterministic metaphor

The digital native is beyond a doubt a catchy phrase, which has been borrowed by many researchers and educators working with young people. As a metaphor it is simple to understand and intuitively mirrors the stereotypes many have about young generation. However, the binary opposition digital natives/digital immigrants is quite problematic in many ways. To begin with, it develops an “othering concept” (Brown and Czerniewicz, 2010), a radical polarisation between the two categories based on the influence of age on the supposed ability to use ICTs. The concept seems to be inflexible, because it implies that a member belonging to one category cannot own skills characteristic of the other category. As argued by Prensky:

“[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.” [14]

Digital immigrants are designated as refugees — incapable of staying where they were, hardly accepted where they must go, not prepared for the new country, and nostalgically attached to their origins: “Not-so-smart (or not-so-flexible) immigrants spend most of their time grousing about how good things were in the ‘old country’.” [15]

Looking at the present political landscape, Bayne and Ross also criticize the colonialist nuance of the digital natives/immigrants metaphor stating that it “inevitably evokes complexities and anxieties around migration, integration, and racial and cultural difference in Western society” (Bayne and Ross, 2007). Furthermore, according to the authors the prenskian dichotomy inevitably places the natives in a hierarchical position compared to the immigrant since they mirror the progress, the future against what is past and obsolete. It is, in other words, a deterministic concept since it implies that people are born into something that determines them and which they cannot change (Brown and Czerniewicz, 2010).

In 2009, Prensky answers to the critics abandoning the digital native metaphor and creating a new one: the “homo sapiens digital”. The author argues that digital enhancement makes humans both smarter and wiser. “Digital wisdom” is a consequence of a natural selection, it has evolutionary connotation and reinforces like the previous metaphor the divide between those who are digitally evolved and those who are not.

Many researchers have challenged Prensky’s model, debating its parameters. The next section reviews the main studies and discusses whether the metaphor of digital native is empirically supported and if it is useful today.

The digital natives/immigrants debate: Is the “moral panic” empirically based or is it just fighting windmills?

The digital native metaphor has come under hard scrutiny. As mentioned previously, the main critique is related to the lack of empirical evidence supporting Prensky’s (2001) claims on the division of generations (Bennett et al., 2008; Hargittai, 2010; Helsper and Eynon, 2010; Lippincott, 2010; Margaryan, et al., 2011; Selwyn, 2009; Thinyane, 2010).

An emerging body of research is beginning to reveal some of the complexity of the young generation’s computer use and skills. In a study with over 2,500 undergraduate Australian learners, Kennedy, et al. (2007) reported a great disparity between the proposed and actual technology use of the Net Generation, particularly in the area of Web 2.0. Similarly, Margaryan (2008) reported that current university students use a limited range of technologies for learning and socialization. She argues:

For learning, mainly established ICTs are used — institutional VLEs [Virtual Learning Environment], Google and Wikipedia, and mobile phones ... the findings point to a low level of use of and familiarity with collaborative knowledge creation tools, virtual worlds, personal Web publishing, and other emergent social technologies. [16]

Helsper and Eynon’s study of British population demonstrates 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.” [17] Furthermore, they claim that

what is very clear is that it is not helpful to define digital natives and immigrants as two distinct, dichotomous generations. While there were differences in how generations engaged with the internet there were similarities across generations as well mainly based on how much experience people have with using technologies. [18]

Similarly, the recent study conducted by Sorrentino, et al. (in press) in Germany on literary reading performance and appreciation on screen vs. on paper rejects popular generational stereotypes according to which being young is equivalent to being digitally or technologically adept. Their findings show that not age, but preference and familiarity with the digital medium were the discriminating factors in their results and technology use lies along a continuum of engagement instead of being a dichotomous divide between natives and immigrants.

On the same line, Kirschner and De Bruyckere (2017) review a growing number of international studies that show how students born after 1984 “do not have any deeper knowledge of technology. The knowledge they have is often limited and consists of having basic office suite skills, emailing, text messaging, Facebooking and surfing the Internet” [19]. It appears that neither the technology they use for learning and socialization nor the way they employ it is very advanced. Contrary to digital divide proponents’ expectations, they do not actively use Web 2.0 technologies and applications, such as wikis and blogs, where users can edit, create and/or collaborate on Web content working both with synchronous and asynchronous tools.

When using technology for learning, the digital natives seem to be passive consumers of information rather than creators of content specifically for academic purposes. Their engagement with technology is largely unspectacular authors reject the popular image of the digital native which has them carrying out multiple tasks in parallel. The human brain can only execute activities in parallel if one or more of the activities is sufficiently well-practised to be automatized. When people carry out multiple tasks requiring information processing they are actually switching between these tasks rather than processing them simultaneously. According to the authors, this kind of switching is “deleterious” for learning, because it impairs performance.

On the other hand, some critical researchers note that representatives of a single generation do have some consistent characteristics, which are not represented in other generations (Lippincott, 2010).

Further studies evidence that socio-economic factors might be more significant than age in the digital domain. Brown and Czerniewicz (2010) carried out research with South African university students that underlines the importance of having access to and experience with using information and communications technologies (ICTs), rather than generational factors [20]. According to the authors, the digital native characteristics are those of a “digital elite” contributing to the digital gap [21] Brown and Czerniewicz, 2010, p. 357)p. 357). Furthermore, Hargittai’s (2010) findings suggest that socioeconomic status, including race and gender, is a significant factor and an important predictor of technology skills, abilities and habits [22].




In the last decade, the claim of the existence of a new generation of learners in possession of advanced technology abilities which the educational system is not able to support has spread anxiety and “moral panic” among parents, teachers, and policy-makers. A growing body of recent studies have questioned the validity of the digital native metaphor showing that Prensky’s assumptions lack empirical evidence and that they are supported mostly by anecdotes and appeals to common sense beliefs.

Metaphors have long provided a fertile ground for researchers in a variety of disciplines including philosophy, literature, linguistics, media studies, and cognitive science. They surround our daily life. More than being a simple matter of words, they represent a cognitive tool (Landau, et al., 2014). Observations on metaphors' cognitive significance date back to Aristotle. People use metaphors constantly to import the physical and experiential into their understanding of pure and abstract social concepts.

Metaphoric language is a powerful tool, which enables charming the audience and represents one of the best ornaments to cover poverty of speech, as their lavish use in current political debate shows.

Going back to the digital native concept, it can be taken as a good example of what kind of resonance a metaphor can have in our society. The terminology is widely used in public, educational and political debate (Helsper and Enyon, 2010). However, the engagement of young people with technology turns out to be more complex and articulated than how it was described by Prensky. The divide between digital native and immigrants seems not to be fixed, nor is the gulf so broad that it cannot be bridged. According to studies reviewed in this contribution, younger generations are not actively and extensively making use of new technologies such as wikis, blogs and 3D virtual worlds for creating content. Many researchers argue for a nuanced understanding of digital learners rather than a monolithic grouping of characteristics, since their main findings reported that not only age, but experience, breadth of use, gender, and social status determine ICT skills.

Due to the lack of empirical evidence, the digital natives’ metaphor appears to be misleading and conceptually confusing. Recently, scholars tried to reframe and rework the notion of digital natives by introducing new categories. For example, in their study of Australian university students, Kennedy, et al. (2010) claim that we might see beyond the digital native/immigrant divide by understanding “four distinct types of technology users: power users (14% of sample), ordinary users (27%), irregular users (14%) and basic users (45%).” [23]

Stoerger (2009) proposed a new metaphor, “the digital melting pot” referring to people speaking with “different technology tongues”. He suggests that “instead of segregating individuals based on their skills or lack thereof, the digital melting pot is a place where all individuals, including those with low levels of competency, experience technology in a way that fosters opportunities without barriers.” [24]

White and Le Cornu (2011) introduced the typology “visitors and residents” to map individuals’ engagement with the Web. According to the authors, the metaphors of “place” and “tool” most appropriately represent the use of technology in contemporary society, especially given the advent of social media. The visitors’ and residents’ categorization accounts for people behaving in different ways when using technology, depending on their motivation and context, without categorising them according to age or background. Visitors use the Web as a tool to address specific needs, they log on to the virtual environment, perform a specific task or acquire specific information and then log off. For that reason they are described as “users, not members, of the Web” placing little value in belonging online. On the other hand, residents spend a proportion of their life online, to connect to, or to be with, other people.

These studies present diverse possible alternatives to digital native discourse and such possibilities might help to improve our understanding of the nature and extent of technology uptake by young people and its implication in education. End of article


About the author

Pasqualina Sorrentino is a doctoral candidate at the University of Göttingen.
E-mail: pasquasorrentino [at] hotmail [dot] it



1. Tapscott, 1998, pp. 85–87.

2. Tapscott, 1998, pp. 22–26.

3. Prensky, 2001a, p. 1, emphasis in original.

4. Prensky, 2001a, p. 1.

5. Prensky, 2001a, p. 5.

6. Prensky, 2001a, p. 3.

7. Palfrey and Gasser, 2008, p. 238.

8. Prensky, 2001a, p.1.

9. Dede, 2005a, p. 10.

10. Oblinger and Oblinger, 2005, p. 27.

11. Bennett, et al., 2008, p. 782.

12. Ibid.

13. Helsper, 2008, p. 3.

14. Prensky, 2001a, pp. 1–2.

15. Prensky, 2001a, p. 3.

16. Margaryan, 2008, p. 1.

17. Helsper and Eynon, 2010, p. 504.

18. Helsper and Eynon, 2010, p. 515.

19. Kirschner and De Bruyckere, 2017, p. 136.

20. Brown and Czerniewicz, 2010, p. 357.

21. Ibid.

22. Hargittai, 2010, p. 92.

23. Emphasis in original; Kennedy, et al., 2010, p. 332.

24. Stoerger, 2009, p. 5.



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Editorial history

Received 3 September 2018; accepted 7 September 2018.

Copyright © 2018, Pasqualina Sorrentino. All RIghts Reserved.

The mystery of the digital natives’ existence: Questioning the validity of the Prenskian metaphor
by Pasqualina Sorrentino.
First Monday, Volume 23, Number 10 - 1 October 2018

A Great Cities Initiative of the University of Illinois at Chicago University Library.

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