Digital natives are people from the generation that grew up in the digital age. They consider technology a necessary part of life, are naturally tech-savvy and from an early age have become very comfortable with computers and digital devices.

You can compare them to the native residents of a foreign town, who know the language and are masters of the terrain. Digital natives speak the language of tech and are masters of digital technologies.

Other interesting terms…

Read More about a “Digital Native”

American writer Marc Prensky initially used the term “digital natives” in a 2001 paper discussing how students have radically changed.

Specifically, Prensky had this to say, “What should we call these “new” students of today? Some refer to them as the N-[for Net]-gen or D-[for digital]-gen. But the most useful designation I have found for them is ‘digital natives.’ Our students today are all ‘native speakers’ of the digital language of computers, video games, and the Internet.”

Age Group of Digital Natives

Marc Prensky defines digital natives as those who were born during the arrival of the digital age. Therefore, digital natives are those born after the year 1980 and include these generations:

  • Gen Y or Millennials: Born between 1981 and 1994.
  • Gen Z: Born between 1997 and 2012.

What Are the Characteristics of Digital Natives?

The most dominant characteristic of digital natives is their tech savvy, owing to the fact that they use technology all the time. Instant messaging apps, emails, social media, and computer games are fundamental parts of their lives.

Prensky even defined students who are digital natives as having spent less than 5,000 hours reading but over 10,000 hours playing video games and 20,000 hours watching TV.

Other significant characteristics of digital natives are:

  • They can efficiently multitask and switch from one activity to another.
  • They are intuitive learners, learning by figuring things out instead of reading manuals.
  • They are less likely to view people in a hierarchical structure as the Internet makes everyone seem equal.
  • They value speed and may not have the patience for delayed results.

Some industries may benefit from learning the specific characteristics of digital natives. Educators and educational institutions, for example, can come up with more effective ways of teaching when they take into account what a digital native is.

On the other hand, businesses can use some of these characteristics to get the attention of digital natives. For instance, since digital natives appreciate speed, website load times have become crucial for search engine optimization (SEO)—the faster a website loads, the better it will rank in the search results.

Difference between Digital Natives and Digital Immigrants

Now that you know what is a digital native and his/her characteristics, you might ask, “What about those born before the digital age and are not too tech-savvy?” These people are called “digital immigrants,” another term coined by Prensky.

Aside from being born before 1980, digital immigrants had to learn how to use digital technology. In his paper, Prensky likened digital immigrants to immigrants in a country. Yes, they can learn to adapt to technology, but some may learn better than others.

To illustrate the difference between digital natives and digital immigrants, imagine:

  • Digital native: A 25-year-old employee checking her emails, writing to-do lists on her phone while watching Netflix.
  • Digital immigrant: A 55-year-old business owner instructing his secretary to print out his plane ticket and some of his emails.

Digital natives and digital immigrants may sometimes clash. For instance, at home, parents who are digital immigrants may not understand how their children can do their homework while music blares in the background. The same is true in school. Digital native students may find it challenging to learn when teachers stick to traditional teaching methods.