The Fallacy of the 'Digital Native'

‘We live in the age of the digital native’, or so many would have us believe. But what does the term really mean? Can someone truly pick up digital skills intuitively? Does this mean there is no need to try to teach young people how to use computers?

Digital LiteracyWe don’t think so. This idea of digital natives is a dangerous fallacy that risks leaving young people without the competences they need for the workplace, and risks leaving businesses without the skilled employees they need. In an age when ICT skills are essential in almost any job, studies have repeatedly shown that young people have serious gaps in their knowledge of workplace ICT. A recent study in Australia, for example, showed that 45% of students could be described as rudimentary digital technology users.

ECDL Foundation is pleased to present our latest position paper, exploring the fallacy of the ‘digital native’ in more depth. The paper sets out the extensive evidence against ‘digital natives’ intuitive computer skills, and concludes that there is a vital need for digital skills development programmes to be part of all forms of education.

Download the press release about the paper.

You can read our position paper here. The following language versions are available: English, Spanish, Dutch, GermanLithuanian, Italian, and Romanian.

We have also published a post on our blog about the 'digital native' fallacy.

Resources on the Fallacy of the 'Digital Native'

There has been plenty of research into the concept, and a number of studies demonstrate the flaws in the idea of the ‘digital native’.

We have collected some resources that debunk the idea of the ‘digital native’.

"Eurostat statistics on young people claim that the highest rates of computer use are recorded in Baltic countries. Having worked in the area of digital skills development in Lithuania for more than 10 years, I can confidently claim that intensive computer use does not result in high-quality digital skills. Young people tend to overestimate their digital skills, but in reality they do not have the skills required for the workplace. To prepare young people for future challenges, we have to provide them with high quality ICT education, training and certification programmes."

—Renata Danielienė, EU Digital Champion Lithuania

“We often wrongly assume that young people have a complete set of digital skills because they grow up surrounded by digital technologies. The skills that they acquire on the daily basis by using social networks and retrieving online content are not sufficient in the labour market. Required productivity skills can be acquired only by adequate digital education and training.”
—Kestutis Juskevicius, Former EU Digital Champion Lithuania

“Simply providing the equipment does not help young people understand how that technology can better their lives without education and training”, Nishant Shah, Director, Centre for Internet and Society, India
— ‘What does it mean to be digital native?’, Oliver Joy, CNN

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“There is a myth about the digital native and the Google generation kid who, because they are young, are seen as being more computer literate than their parents, but that is totally wrong.”, Dan Russell, Google
‘Great internet age divide is a myth’, Dan Russell, Google

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"Businesses believe throwing a horde of inexperienced millennials at the problem will solve it. But that just won’t work. Just because they are handy with Snapchat filters and emoji use doesn’t mean they can figure out decades-old software or an over-designed expenses app."

'Millennials are not your digital saviours - office culture must change', Madhumita Murgia, The Telegraph


"There is a tendency to assume that digital skills gained in one place translate to others. If we can use our smart phone we can use the new tools at work. This kind of thinking underpins the idea of ‘digital natives’ and ‘millennials’. But we should be careful of such assumptions. <…> We should also note that, even as digital natives enter the workforce, business and government keep calling for greater digital, communication and people skills. This implies that the skills and knowledge of digital natives may be more complex, and possibly far more ‘patchy’ than that we might assume from their lifelong attachment to technologies."

— 'Digital Culture Clash', Professor Simeon Yates, Institute of Cultural Capital / Cisco


"Effective use of skills is a key challenge among OECD countries both for young people and older workers. Evidence shows that young people entering the workplace make the least use of information processing skills, including ICT skills, in comparison with prime age workers (Quintini, 2014, p. 30).

This evidence is at odds with the general opinion that young people are naturally well versed in online skills (the myth of the digital native), as young people do not naturally or automatically acquire digital literacies (Livingstone and Haddon et al., 2014). Instead, the evidence points at ICT skills acquisition through use. Indeed, there is a two-way relationship between proficiency in information processing skills and the use of those skills: proficiency facilitates practice and practice reinforces proficiency."

— 'Skills for a Digital World', OECD


“Digital literacy does need to be taught: young people have usually acquired some knowledge of computer systems, but their knowledge is patchy. The idea that teaching this is unnecessary because of the sheer ubiquity of technology that surrounds young people as they are growing up – the ‘digital native’ – should be treated with great caution.”
—“Shut down or restart? The way forward for computing in UK schools”, The Royal Society, 2012

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“Young people’s engagements with digital technologies are varied and often unspectacular”
— ‘The digital native – myth and reality’, Neil Selwyn, Academic, Monash University, Australia. Aslib Proceedings: New Information Perspectives, 2009.

“In my fieldwork, I often found that teens must fend for themselves to make sense of how technologies work and how information spreads … It is dangerous to assume that youth are automatically informed.”
— ‘It’s Complicated’, Danah Boyd, Researcher and Author,Microsoft, 2014

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“Talk of digital natives obscures children’s need for support in developing digital skills”
— ‘EU Kids Online Final Report’, Sonia Livingstone, Academic, London School of Economics, 2011

“76% of computer science students considered themselves to have a good level of knowledge, but only 45% answered the technical security questions correctly.”
‘Security of the Digital Natives’, Tech and Law Center, 2014

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“There is a growing body of academic research that has questioned the validity of the generational interpretation of the digital native concept.”
— ‘Digital natives: where is the evidence?’, Ellen Helsper and Rebecca Enyon

“This research indicated that the average student is not a sophisticated user of technology.”
— ‘Beyond natives and immigrants: exploring types of net generation students’, Kennedy, Judd & Waycott, 2010

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“Regardless of whether or not we consider young people to be digital natives, we would be naïve to expect them to develop Computer Information Literacy in the absence of coherent learning programs.”
— International Computer and Information Literacy Study, IEA, 2013

— ‘The Digital Native Debate in Higher Education: A Comparative Analysis of Recent Literature’, Erika E. Smith, 2012

Fallacy of the ‘Digital Native’ Around the World

The fallacy of the ‘digital native’ is a problem wherever decisions are being made on education and training for young people. Our National Operators for ECDL / ICDL in several countries have translated the position paper, which is available for download below.

In the Media

The issue has also featured in a number of publications in different countries.

"Non, les jeunes ne maitrisent pas tous internet ! Seuls 7% des 15-29 ans ont de très bonnes compétences informatiques."—'Les 10 rapports qu’il faut avoir lu en 2015', Les Cahiers Connexions Solidaires, France

“Tous les citoyens devraient avoir la possibilité de développer leurs compétences numériques et les jeunes ne doivent pas être mis de côté.” — ‘Les « Digital Natives » n’existent pas’, Rue89, France

“Una recente indagine condotta sugli studenti universitari italiani, per esempio, svela che il 42% dei giovani non è ben consapevole dei rischi di navigare usando una rete wi-fi aperta, il 40% non protegge all’accesso il proprio smartphone e addirittura il 50% non si preoccupa di controllare le autorizzazioni richieste per l’installazione di app.” — ‘Il falso mito dei «nativi digitali»: quasi il 50% non sa usare Internet’, Scuola24, Italy

“Les «compétences» souvent mises en avant pour qualifier cette génération de «numérique» sont avant tout des «compétences de modes de vie» («lifestyle skills») comme écrire des SMS, jouer à des jeux vidéo ou regarder des vidéos. Or, ce ne sont pas ces compétences numériques qui sont utiles sur le marché du travail.” — ‘La fracture numérique existe aussi chez les «digital natives»’, SlateFR, France

“Non sanno cosa si rischia a navigare con wi-fi aperta, non proteggono lo smartphone, non controllano le condizioni di servizio: i ragazzi dai 15 ai 29 anni non conoscono la Rete” — ‘I nativi digitali non sanno usare Internet’,, Italy

"The familiar narrative of teens and technology is one of natural proficiency — that young people just get technology in a way that older generations don't. But research suggests that just because children feel at home using smartphones, it doesn't mean they're more aware of the nuances of how the web works.", The Verge

"Just because children are using these devices doesn't mean they are learning these deeper sophisticated skills - that requires explicit teaching.", The Educator

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