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According to education experts our ability to use new technologies could be tied to when we were born… and that divide may be the year 1980.

That’s right, the theory goes: If you were born after 1980 you are classed as a Digital Native, but those born before this date are Digital Immigrants. Seems like a pretty harsh classification, however, there is more to the concept than straight up ageism.

As each age group progresses it becomes more apparent that the current generations are naturally more comfortable using new technology than its predecessors. We are beginning to see younger children pick up a tablet or games console and use it without hassle or questioning the technology.

But how far has this progression gone? Are children nowadays naturally better equipped to handle technology due to their total immersion in it? Does this mean the older generations are not as adept simply because they haven’t been surrounded by it? Or are the pre 80’s generation technologically skilled in a different way?


These two divisions could be attributed to a generational theory of “Digital Nativity”.

The Digital Native is a person born after 1980, they have been surrounded by digital technology all their life. The technology may have changed and adapted over the 30 years but they have still been immersed in life of digital products.

A Digital Immigrant is a person born before 1980, they have not had technology as a standard in their life. Technology is something that they have had to learn and transfer their skills across too. Digital technology may have been something that they have had to adapt to use as they were not ‘brought up’ using it.

In Education

Education writer Mark Prensky coined the terms “Digital Native” and “Digital Immigrant” in 2001. His article focused on the relationship between teacher and student- The generational gap meant students were almost all Digital Natives, where as the teachers where usually Digital Immigrants. He looked into how the new generation of students learn and how the pre 1980 staff taught, comparing it to different languages, pre and post digital.

“Today’s students think and process information fundamentally differently from their predecessors.”

Prensky argues that the Digital Natives may prefer to learn in a different way focusing on graphics, links and interactive methods. He begins to discuss these attitudes as “language, natives are fluent in this technological language, compared to immigrants who have had to learn it.”

“As Digital Immigrants learn – like all immigrants, some better than others – to adapt to their environment, they always retain, to some degree, their “accent,” that is, their foot in the past. The “digital immigrant accent” can be seen in such things as turning to the Internet for information second rather than first, or in reading the manual for a program rather than assuming that the program itself will teach us to use it”


Do you have a digital immigrant accent?


This can be rather wide ranging from simply printing off documents as opposed to sharing them via a cloud? Physically showing people a website rather than sending a URL or not utilising digital communications- do you call friends abroad rather than use social media or Skype? All these, in various forms are traces of an ‘Immigrant accent’.


 As the subject is so broad-ranging arguments and flaws are certainly picked in the idea of digital fluency- and it is worth noting it is only a concept…

First of all, a HUGE proportion of the technology used today was invented by people who would be classed as a “Digital Immigrant” under these terms. It would be very difficult to argue that someone like Tim Berners-Lee or Bill Gates is in anyway less technologically savvy than an 8 year old with an iPod. These are the Inventors of the ‘Digital Age’.

A Second issue would be that not all people born in the Digital Native age are ‘Tech Savvy’. Many young people are as uncomfortable with technology as anyone from earlier generations. Those born in the 1980’s may not have been privileged enough to grow up with technology first hand, be that practicality, financially or day to day use…

Carrying on with the privileged element, how can we assess different generations in countries without access to the modern electronics? Countries in Asia, North America and Europe are far more likely to spawn truly Digitally Native students compared to somewhere like Congo, that has been torn apart by war for the last 20 years. Are children from so called technologically advanced countries like Japan and Korea even a step ahead of the European generation?

What does it mean to be Native?


Well this is something again up for argument and would probably change for each generation within the natives. A Native was born after 1980 and is supposedly digitally adept, meaning they are as happy to pick up a smartphone and have it working as you are at programming your digital TV. It has been compared to being born naturally bilingual, the learning process has been a part of their ‘standard education’ and growing up.

All though they are all Digital Native, their  skill-set would change from each generation within this classification. Those born in the 80’s may have been immersed in the world of technology, but that scene is something completely different to that of the 2000’s. An 80’s Native would probably have a better idea about simple coding, as many of the computers (and games) of the time required these commands to function.

A native of the 2000’s would possibly be less aware of the ‘backdoor’ programming needed to get their games to work.  Consoles and PC’s simply work out of the box now. These Natives are however much more adapted to working with fast programs, quick responses and dealing with information in varied formats.

Can an Immigrant become Native?

Well, no. It’s a ‘generational thing’. Prensky described the digital age as a “new culture”. But unlike many political ‘new cultures’ like the Soviet Iron Curtain or Mao’s revolution, there is no definitive start, or forced participation.

The argument here is not that the Digital Immigrants are unable to grasp technological concepts- You could be far more adept with technology than your children- but instead you simply have never experienced total immersion in technology. At one point you did things the ‘old way’.

What’s next?shutterstock_116882578

Will we have the next stage of Digital Native when total immersion technologies come through? At the moment our Natives could go ‘’Off Radar” if they really wanted to, unplug a few boxes and switch off their phone. But what happens when technology becomes inherent or embedded?

It’s all bit Orwell & 1984 but the concept of wearable tech and computer implants is basically upon us. Will the next generation of constantly ‘hard-wired’ children be any different to those who have the option?


So are you a Digital Native or Digital Immigrant and are you happy with that labelling? Do you think that the concept is too vague or is there good reason behind its labelling? And what’s next, is this new generation unable to grasp the fundementals of digital programming because everything is on a plate? or is it the problem of the teacher who cannot adapt to a new way of learning?

texting making us smarter header title


  1. My god, this makes me feel old!

    Having said that, I think we “immigrants” have a distinct advantage over the “natives”.

    As mentioned in the article, natives are used to technology “just working” when switched on.

    I have lost count of the number of times I’ve been asked by a “native” to sort out their computer problems… “it just doesn’t work”.


  2. I totally agree with Nick, just like you I have younger friends who are what you call “Natives” but any computer/tablet issues they all come round and say the same. I also think having to learn about technology gives you more of an understanding as well.

  3. Even though I am classed as a Native (Born 84) I wouldn’t class myself as immersed from an early age. But I think it is easier for my generation as we have grown up with each no piece of tech, so we can appreciate the tech we have now. Kids born in the late 90’s and 00’s just accept tech and have no real understanding of it. Remember getting an Amstrad and poking around to see what I could get out of it. When we got a 486 my mind was blown.

  4. Way to go enforcing stereotypes there Ebuyer, every stock photo you have of someone with a computer is wearing glasses?

    I’m sure that those who wear glasses are just as annoyed by this stereotype as I am, as a person who does not.

    Geek =/= Glasses
    Glasses =/= Geek

  5. As an immigrant I was offered the chance to do a brand new O’Level at school in 1978 – ‘Computer studies’ at the time my school did not have anyone qualified to teach it & one of the maths teachers was learning at the same time that we were. I those days we were taught how to program & how they worked. As john has mentioned you learn’t how your computer worked in detail to find those extra few bytes of RAM you needed or to make it display graphics that it was never designed to do. (How many of today’s software developers could code a game like elite that could run on a machine with just 32k of RAM!). With todays tech I can do far more than most ‘Natives’

  6. I’m a Digital Immigrant.

    Born in ’79, we did not have a pc until I went to secondary school. My father realised that he had to get one (Opus 386dx25 & 40MB Winchester HDD!) when I came home from school, he asked me where my homework was and I showed him a 3.5″ floppy disc.

    Up until then, we had Dragon 32 console & a ZX Spectrum which meant 15 minutes of waiting for the games to load off a tape player. Only to find that you had the volume on the tape player too high or too low, the game crashed and you had to start again from scratch.

    Time and technology have definitely moved on since then. I now have an Android smartphone and a Google 7″ Tablet, both of which are faster than my 3.4 Ghz Pentium PC.

    Even then I still have people of various ages asking me to help them with their computers, phones and tablets.

  7. A very sweeping generalisation.

    Who do you think designed & build the systems that the post 1980 babies used!

    Some of us baby-boomers were into domestic IT before the 1980 babies were out of nappies!

    Anyone remember the ZX80/ZX81/Spectrum/Vic20 et al…

    Now retired & STILL building fast PCs 😉

  8. Rubbish, born in 1954, immersed in the digital world since 1967. Just because the pc came in 1981 does not mean no computers before.

  9. Well, apparently I’m an immigrant. There’s no doubt if your’re born into something then you should fair better than someone who has to learn. The funny thing is, these ‘natives’ suffer from the ‘Cole Trickle’ syndrome. Cole Trickle is a character in a movie who can do anything with a race car around the track, but he knows absolutely nothing about how it works underneath. Today’s Cole’s are bringing their digital devices to me for repair, re-installations and General advice. That is like me going to an immigrant for English lessons. In other words the harsh term given to us doesn’t seem so harsh when it’s the immigrants that actually know more. You’re forgetting that we grew up learning about new technologies so we were fully weaned when they arrived. Remember Tomorrow’s World, it wasn’t ALL mumbo jumbo.

  10. What a load of rubbish!
    I agree with the others above, I got into computing in the very late ’70s, with the RM 380Z, then the ZX-80, 81, Sharp MZ80K, RM 480Z, BBC Micro, ZX Spectrum and many, many others. I’ve built and repaired (inc board level) more micros/PCs/phones/stuff than I care to remember.

    Today ‘digital natives’ can use Facebook/Twitter/Snapchat for 18 hours straight , but if their PC/tablet/phone stops working that’s it – game over – they don’t know how it works or how to fix it. Not exactly ‘native’ then is it?

    While my mother is definitely a ‘digital immigrant’, I am most definitely not. I am geek and proud of it! 🙂

  11. Is it as much a case that us immigrants know a life outside of electronic devices? Although I know my way round the technology, a software developer by trade, I don’t feel the need to be constantly texting etc my friends and informing complete strangers of what I’ve just eaten. I actually go outside my front door and talk to people face to face. I guess that means I am not totally immersed thank goodness.

  12. I can only agree with most of the “immigrant” comments. I am 81, and when I go into a shop to look at a piece of digital equipment, I get treated as an “old buffer” until the assistant realizes that I know more than him about modern electronics. The same happened yesterday when I asked in a shop whether they could show me an oled 4k TV. The assistant asked if I knew what 4K meant! In reply I asked him whether he’d heard of the new HDR TVs and knew how they worked.

    It’s very easy to generalize, and not all generalizations are true.

  13. The publisher of these post’s, has left me wondering if they actually know a hundred percent of what they are talking about. I say this, as to put a time frame of when you was born, is completely ludicrous.
    Of course the older you, are the less likely to adopt new technologies with open arms. Having said this, I screw your statistics up. Being in 79.
    Having said this, there are many people out there who are older than myself, who have influenced the way world now communicates information today.

    I personally believe you might need to adjust your date, to something like 1986. The internet really started to take off in the late 90’s. This would be more inline with this.

  14. I’m definitely an immigrant – born 1939. At school, the latest “technology” was a photo copier and an adding machine on which you pulled a handle.to enter numbers. I “graduated” from ZX80 (with a printer which fired sparks on to the paper), Spectrum, BBC then PC with early Window. I’m now up to Windows 10! I’ve taught myself to do word processing, desktop publishing, website design and photo editing, mostly by trial and error and as a last resort, reading instructions some of which require a degree in computing to even make sense of them. I am also usually able to sort out most computer problems and I certainly had a few of those with Windows 10. I am often asked to help or advise some younger than me. However, I can’t keep up with grandchildren and their tablets. The completely baffle me. I’m disabled due to a chronic heart condition and working on my PC is one thing I’m able to do and for that I’m eternally grateful.

  15. Thank goodness I’m a digital migrant.

    I think Nick had it right. The problem with digital natives, is most of them are incapable of sorting out even the most basic of problems. There are always exceptions of course. But what I’ve noticed, is digital natives generally lack any form of common sense. Who in their right mind would be staring at a mobile and walk in front of a bus? Yet I see it on a regular basis.

    What can be that important on a screen, that you’re prepared to risk your life for it?

    I think I’ll stay put, firmly in the digital migrant pigeon hole.


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