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Digital natives: are children really better at using the online world than adults?

Children at screens

Popular thinking has it that children instinctively know how to navigate the digital universe, while their parents are clueless. What’s the truth?

It is often said that young people are ‘digital natives’, implying that they’ve grown up with the internet and understand it better than their parents.

In fact, this can be misleading. The American sociologist Eszter Hargittai has shown that there are significant differences among all age groups when it comes both to technical skills and media literacy. 

Teenagers are often very experienced users of social networks and may well be familiar with the latest gadgets and services. But this doesn’t mean they understand everything about the online world. The American academic Danah Boyd has found that many teenagers don’t understand why searching on Google brings up some information before other information – or that what comes first depends on who is doing the searching.

‘The more technically sophisticated a young person’s friends are, the more likely they are to develop tech skills themselves’

When we call young people digital natives, Danah Boyd says, we are lumping all young people together, saying they’ve all mastered the digital world and feel confident. In reality, many teens feel the online world is unfamiliar and uncertain and don’t always know how to control the information that’s coming and going to and from them. They certainly don’t always know how to interpret it.

Rather than assuming that young people are digital natives, she argues, we should be looking to increase their wisdom in using digital tools – making sure they understand the commercial reasons why some things happen on the internet, for example; why organisations are collecting their data – and that their personal information is valuable.

The more technically sophisticated a young person’s friends are, the more likely they are to develop tech skills themselves.

What can you do?

  • Don’t worry if you can’t keep up with all the new apps and services out there just in case your child may one day want to use them. Instead, concentrate on getting to know the ones your children already use so you understand the world they’re living in and can offer them help and support if they need it from a position of knowledge and experience.
  • Check your child has activated privacy settings on all the apps and devices they use to access the internet.
  • Help them to set and understand the tools they need to block or mute people who make their online lives difficult or upsetting.
  • Encourage their critical thinking skills and bring them up to question what they watch, read and hear onlline just as they would in the offline world.

Further reading

The 5 digital parenting rules that really matter

Think critically!

The advice published on Parent Info is provided by independent experts in their field and not necessarily the views of Parent Zone or NCA-CEOP.

Updated: ​May 2018

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