Busting the Myths of the Digital Native

By Hilary Scharton

As the vice president of an education technology company, I constantly see the amazing things children can do, and how quickly they can learn, by using technology. One teacher I talked to even went so far as to say, “Technology isn’t just part of their world. It IS their world!”

This widespread presumption that children have an innate aptitude for technology has developed into the term “digital native.” A digital native is defined as a person who was born after 1984 and who grew up in the digital age (first coined by Marc Prensky in the 2001 article “Digital Natives, Digital Immigrants”). Hilariously, digital natives are also called “homo zappiëns.” Digital immigrants are us older people who came to technology as adults.

In truth, “digital natives” don’t exist. No one is born with tech skills—they need to learn them. Our children are not fundamentally different than we are, and although children now grow up surrounded by technology, we still need to teach them how to use tech effectively.

And there are surprising beliefs you probably have about your child’s tech ability that are probably not true. Here are three myths about parenting (and teaching!) in the digital age, and solutions to those myths:

Myth 1: Children instinctively know how to use technology

Kids may use technology a lot, but their range is quite narrow, and not very deep. They’re okay at the basics (email, texting, surfing the internet, etc.), but when it comes to using technology to learn, it’s mostly passive consumption of information.

The European Union’s Kids Online report noted that, “Children knowing more than their parents has been exaggerated … Talk of digital natives obscures children’s need for support in developing digital skills.”

Meanwhile, a survey from the Pew Research Center found that children probably know a lot about social media and usage convention, but are unaware of the difference between the internet and “World Wide Web” or what Net Neutrality means.

Solution: Time for Teaching  

We need to show children how to use technology for learning real-world concepts and solving everyday challenges. Share your knowledge about how to access search engines, format documents and embrace innovation. Through conversations about how they can consciously acquire more skills, your child will know it’s okay to not know everything about technology.

Myth 2:  Children are good multitaskers

Children face increasingly packed schedules, so they’re more likely to multitask—by frequently task-switching and/or using different kinds of media at the same time. Studies show that’s hard on our cognitive load, so people who multitask consistently end up taking longer to shift their attention and having a harder time filtering out irrelevant information. (Yes, I just said that chronic multitaskers are actually worse at multitasking.)  Children can also become stressed out because they try to make up the time they spent task-switching by working faster.

Solution:  Find your focus

Help your kids learn to focus on homework, email or other online tasks the same way they would focus on recreational things such as a video game or YouTube. As an adult, you can give them an example by turning off your instant notifications and putting away your phone from time to time. Growing their ability to completely immerse themselves in something will be good for your children as they grow up and encounter harder problems.

Myth 3: Technology (especially social media) prevents kids from having healthy social-emotional lives

All of us flourish when we pursue social-emotional learning, in which we understand and manage emotions, relationships and feelings for others. Some research shows that using technology and social media can make us anxious and depressed. That’s true.

But technology does have its benefits when making social connections.

For example, technology enhances communication skills and creativity. It fosters a unique identity and attracts a diverse circle of connections, so kids have more respect and tolerance for differences.

Solution: Everything in Moderation    

The Pew Research Center found that young adults send more text messages than older people, but make about the same number of phone calls. That means they are actually communicating more by supplementing voice conversations with text conversations. The key to communicating through technology is moderation. Help your kids make their social interactions count. Encourage them to join or create groups about their interests, and make sure that phones and other technology get put away at meal times and bed times.

Your child still needs your guidance to learn how to be safe and responsible in the digital world

There’s no need to be intimidated by “digital natives.” You know your children better than anyone, and you likely know as much about technology as they do. Don’t assume that because they can fix your router connection, log onto a new social media app or master an online game that you don’t have anything to contribute.

Technology is just another thing of many things you are teaching your child as they grow and develop, so continue to ask questions, pay attention and provide encouragement during your child’s journey. You just might find that innovation is for all, and you’ll grow closer as a result.

Hilary Scharton is the vice president of K-12 product strategy for Canvas, an online learning management system. She is a former psychologist for Utah school districts.

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