Henry Jenkins recently came to speak to the School of Information (audio here). While much of the talk was on his take on the notion of new media literacies, the beginning of the talk was more focused on the problematic concepts of “Digital Native” and “Digital Immigrants.” He recently wrote about the these metaphors that both academics and the popular press often invoke to refer to a sense that that the consequences of “those kids today” being born into an internet-ed world make their brains fundamentally different from those of their parents and the rest of us adults.

So, even though I’ve been lucky to have had easy access to a computer since I was in elementary school, have had difficulty writing essays in long-hand for the past ten years, and my laptop and I are best of friends, I am still an immigrant to some digital world. Jenkins talks about the power this metaphor had for him at one point but also why he can no longer use it. Not only does it rely on “out of date assumptions about immigrants” (the not-digital kind), the implications, he says are dangerous:

Yet, I worry that the metaphor may be having the opposite effect now — implying that young people are better off without us and thus justifying decisions not to adjust educational practices to create a space where young and old might be able to learn from each other.

I agree with Jenkins here. Additionally, however, I would add that the metaphors also imply a universal notion of what “kids today” do. This to me is just as silly as trying to describe what the rest of us do in universal terms.

One of the themes that the researchers on the Digital Youth project have discussed for the past three years is how complex the world of young people looks when you start to compare across situations and forms of technology use. We have been delighted and surprised by both the differences and similarities between what participants in our studies say and do and things that we thought and did in our pre-Internet days. For example, Christo Sims found at that…surpise…kids in rural California still value all of the freedoms that come with getting a drivers license (even though they should be able to do everything through the internet…right?). Starting our research with the assumptions that go along with the rhetoric of a generation gap would have been costly.

Recently, a UK study made some empirical findings to help bolster this critique of the notion of digital natives and digital immigrants, of the obvious generation gap.

Besides having one of the greatest report covers I’ve seen for an academic publication, some of the findings were quite interesting. The researchers used data presented in other studies (surveys by other organizations, such as Ofcom) and did their own research on how the so-called “Google Generation” and older people used various library services (note that the term “Digital Native” predates the rise to prominence of Google so this “generation” may be even younger, but it’s hard to say how to relate the terms precisely…). Their conclusion: the idea of a generation gap is overblown and misunderstood. When there are differences amongst age groups, they note that they don’t know what can be attributed to generational issues or what can be attributed to moving through different life stages:

This is a powerful reminder that people have different information needs at different points in their lives. There are very very few controlled studies that account for age and information seeking behaviour systematically: as a result there is much mis-information and much speculation about how young people supposedly behave in cybersace.

Later, they point out that while it is “generally true” that younger users are “more competent with technology” (confidence level: medium), they also believe that “older users are catching up fast.” Note that they don’t present empirical results that justify this sense of “catching up,” but it seems no more far-fetched than the idea that young people “naturally” are more competent than their parents.

Kid making a great face at a computer not in frame with reflection of Darth Vader

They have several pages addressing the usual claims made about younger generation vs. their elders and they shoot down most of them (see pages 18-20).

Here, their conclusions actually make a great deal of sense:

“In a real sense, we are all the Google generation now: the demographics of internet and media consumption are rapidly eroding this presumed generational difference. The evidence indicates that more people across all age groups are using the Internet and Web 2.0 technologies widely and for a variety of purposes…

In many ways the Google generation label is increasingly unhelpful: recent research finds that it is not even accurate within the cohort of young people that it seeks to stereotype.”

There’s a lot of other stuff worth checking out in the study, especially if you are a librarian or educator.

Read the full report (warning: large PDF).
Go to the “Google Generation” project page.