the educational technology journal

Vol 17|No 2|November 2007
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Digital Nativism
Digital Delusions

and Digital Deprivation

By Jamie McKenzie
About author

Being born into a culture saturated with things digital is not a complete blessing despite the eager claims of digital drum majors and pied pipers. Neither is such immersion an automatic state of grace.

Those leading the digital surge are quick to exile older folks to a dust bin of irrelevancy simply because they were born before the iPod. Their point of view is harsh and ill informed. Their stance is unsubstantiated by evidence and is little more than digital delusion. They are guilty of "arcade scholarship" - analysis that is superficial and cartoonish.

Childhood is shifting inside. Some fear the consequences of sensory deprivation over the long haul with excessive exposure to things digital. A Digital Waste Land is a poor substitute for the rich flavors, smells and touches of the real world. Leading psychologists have signaled their concern in reports like Fool's Gold. FaceBook, MySpace and Second Life are poor substitutes for face to face communities and the playground.

Prensky's Digital Nativism

With an insulting tone worthy of the original American nativists who hated immigrants (especially Catholic ones), Marc Prensky speaks of pre-iPod humans (digital immigrants) contemptuously. (Prensky's work)

In a rather shallow piece lacking in evidence or data, Prensky offers the terms "digital natives" and "digital immigrants" to set up a generational divide. His proposition is simple-minded. He paints digital experience as wonderful and old ways as worthless. He lumps people together by nothing more than age and exposure, spending little time on differentiating or understanding. He offers learning with video games as a digital Nirvana that should replace forms of learning that he claims are now outmoded.

Thinly Supported Claim #1 - A really big discontinuity!

"Today’s students have not just changed incrementally from those of the past, nor simply changed their slang, clothes, body adornments, or styles, as has happened between generations previously. A really big discontinuity has taken place."

Throughout his article Prensky makes similar grandiose claims that are entirely unsubstantiated with any evidence. He presents no data or studies to back up a central thesis of his paper.

A really big discontinuity? How big? His casual language signals sloppy research and thinking. Arcade scholarship. Hip. Clever. Glib. Wrong.

Prensky's Brave New World of Video Game Learning

It is amusing to note Prensky's unbridled enthusiasm for learning via video games. Without addressing any of the serious negatives associated with the violence and negative consequences of such games, he sells them as the new learning medium best suited to his young digital natives.

Thinly Supported Claim #2 - Brain change!

"It is now clear that as a result of this ubiquitous environment and the sheer volume of their interaction with it, today’s students think and process information fundamentally differently from their predecessors. These differences go far further and deeper than most educators suspect or realize. “Different kinds of experiences lead to different brain structures, “ says Dr. Bruce D. Berry of Baylor College of Medicine. As we shall see in the next installment, it is very likely that our students’ brains have physically changed – and are different from ours – as a result of how they grew up. But whether or not this is literally true, we can say with certainty that their thinking patterns have changed."

Prensky cites only one author but no book to back his claim, then weasels on the claim with words like "very likely" and "whether or not this is literally true."

Does Dr. Bruce exist? What has he written?

A search at Google and Google Scholar shows that the only time Dr. Bruce D. Berry appears is in articles citing Prensky's work. There are no publications of his own listed anywhere. Nor are any listed at Amazon.com. Nor is Dr. Bruce listed at the Baylor College of Medicine at http://www.bcm.edu/directory/ His work cannot be found at ERIC. Where does he work? What has he written? We cannot find him, his research or his books.

Prensky uses Berry as support for his speculation but fails to list his work. Perhaps he is apocryphal? Sadly, Prensky's report of Berry's claim is repeated in dozens of other documents that quote Prensky without bothering to check his sources.

Prensky has not spelled the good doctor's name correctly. His name is Dr. Bruce D. Perry. He has written extensively about the effects of trauma on the brains of children. A list of his articles can be found at http://home.earthlink.net/~hopefull/TC_brucedperry.htm

Bruce D. Perry, M.D., Ph.D. is the Senior Fellow of The Child Trauma Academy, a not-for-profit organization based in Houston that promotes innovations in service, research and education in child maltreatment and childhood trauma (www.ChildTrauma.org).

Arcade scholarship? Virtual truth?

Prensky quotes Dr. Perry out of context and without citing which article or study he has in mind. He makes it seem like Perry is supporting his claim that growing up digitally will change the brains of the young.

What did Perry actually say? His work is focused on trauma, not digital experience. And he means something quite different by changing structures than what Prensky has suggested.

Trauma and the Developing Brain

To help Sandy and millions of other traumatized children, we need to understand how the brain responds to threat, how it stores traumatic memories and how it is altered by the traumatic experience. Yes, altered. All experience changes the brain – good experiences like piano lessons and bad experiences like living through a tornado as it destroys your home. This is so because the brain is designed to change in response to patterned, repetitive stimulation. And the stimulation associated with fear and trauma changes the brain.

Source: Perry, B.D. Traumatized children: How childhood trauma influences brain development. In: The Journal of the California Alliance for the Mentally Ill 11:1, 48-51, 2000

Prensky took extreme liberties with the work of Dr. Perry, not even bothering to cite his work or spell his name correctly.

If anything, Perry is arguing against the digital world that Prensky welcomes and celebrates:

Unfortunately, our current programs, policies, and practices not only disregard what we do know about the brain and early childhood development, they are leading to irreparable harm to individuals and society. Unless we change our ways, Dr. Perry predicted, a century from now we will have 25% of families characterized as high-risk, instead of 10%. In one setting after another, we remove children from human relationships and human touch. We keep babies with babies, teenagers with teenagers, and grandparents with other grandparents. “We have created an environment where kids are growing up wanting more shiny things and starving for the fundamental core human relational aspects of touch, smile, and a moment spent sitting with someone.”
When we do this, Dr. Perry said, we are doing nothing less than undermining the fundamental nature of our species.
Source: The Power of Early Childhood at http://www.mncourts.gov/documents/0/Public/Children's_Justice_Initiative/

Prensky Ignores Serious Studies of the Young and Important Data

Quick to stereotype generations, Prensky lumps all young ones together as digital natives even though reports like "Generation M: Media in the Lives of 8–18 Year-0lds" issued by the Kaiser Family Foundation paint a far more complex portrait and base their comments on data gathered through surveys. His stereotypes and sweeping comments seem fabricated through personal observations, strong bias and wishful thinking.

There is much more variance within this age group that Prensky claims when it comes to immersion in things digital as is reported in Appendix 7.5 and many other places throughout "Generation M."

To begin with, for each major category (TV, Print, Computer, Video Games), users are divided into three categories:

  • Light users
  • Medium users
  • Heavy users

TV - Thus, the report lists 34% as light users of TV (less than an hour daily), 45% as medium users (More than 1 hr. - 5 hrs.) and 20% as heavy users (More than 5 hrs.).

Print - The report lists 26% as light users (none), 55% as medium users (5 min. - 1 hr.) and 19% as heavy users (More than 1 hr).

Computers - The report lists 45% as light users (none), 38% as medium users (5 min - 2 hrs.) and 16% as heavy users (More than 2 hrs.).

Video Games - The report lists 58% as light users (none), 28% as medium users (5 min - 1 hr.) and 13% as heavy users (More than 1 hr.).

These "Generation M" data give the lie to Prensky's simplistic view of life and the generations as the variance in usage would suggest young people do not fit neatly into his "digital native" category.

The authors of "Generation M" were surprised to learn that computer time accounted for only about 5% of young people's use of media.

Prensky's cherished video games were much more popular with boys than girls but use of such games actually declined with age.

Quoting from Chapter Four of "Generation M"

Video gaming is negatively related to age. Table 4-L indicates that substantially fewer 15- to 18-year-olds (39%) than either 8- to 10-year-olds (59%) or 11- to 14-year-olds (57%) use video games on any given day, and that they spend significantly less time using games (there is no significant difference in the proportion of the two younger age-groups that use video games nor in the amount of time devoted to them).

Video games are clearly gender-typed. Boys are much more likely than girls to play video games on any given day (63% vs. 40%, respectively), and to spend more than an hour daily with video games (31% vs. 11%). Boys spend almost three times as much time as girls playing video games (1:12 vs. 0:25).

Prensky's Legacy Learning vs. Future Learning

Throughout his article, Prensky is fond of simple groupings. He takes complex matters and reduces them into pairs and trios. Having claimed that the young learn entirely differently than the old, he says, "Today’s teachers have to learn to communicate in the language and style of their students."

Fix schools by:

  1. Changing methodology to match the preferences of the young
  2. Changing content to emphasize "future" content over "legacy" content

Thankfully, as Prensky puts a premium on all that is new, he does give a nod to logic:

This doesn't mean changing the meaning of what is important, or of good thinking skills. But it does mean going faster, less step-by step, more in parallel, with more random access, among other things. Educators might ask “But how do we teach logic in this fashion?” While it’s not immediately clear, we do need to figure it out.

His description of "future" content is vacuous (showing a lack of thought or logic):

“Future” content is to a large extent, not surprisingly, digital and technological. But while it includes software, hardware, robotics, nanotechnology, genomics, etc. it also includes the ethics, politics, sociology, languages and other things that go with them.
This “Future” content is extremely interesting to today’s students. But how many Digital Immigrants are prepared to teach it? Someone once suggested to me that kids should only be allowed to use computers in school that they have built themselves. It’s a brilliant idea that is very doable from the point of view of the students’ capabilities. But who could teach it?

Brilliant idea? One wonders if Prensky read Summerhill or tracked some of the well intended schools that experimented with large amounts of student governance.

Insult after Insult

"Digital Immigrants think learning can’t (or shouldn’t) be fun. Why should they – they didn’t spend their formative years learning with Sesame Street."

Where does Prensky come up with this kind of nonsense? Progressive educators have been arguing for learning that is engaging even before the advent of the television. John Dewey, Hilda Taba and many others have argued for learning that appeals to the senses and sparks the curiosity of the young.

Prensky seems to know little about schooling over the decades, and such ignorance is bliss, as it allows him to make preposterous, sweeping, insulting comments about those who have been working over the years.

Video Game Nirvana?

Prensky's unbridled endorsement of games to educate his natives is irresponsible given the research pointing to harmful effects. In addition to questions we might raise about an arcade learning strategy, there are many values embedded in these games regarding violence and decency that Prensky ignores.

Violent Video Game Effects on Children and Adolescents

ISU psychologists have recently released a book which has proved the harmful effects of violent video games on kids and youth.

The results published in the book are based on the findings of three different studies carried out by the psychologists recently.

ISU distinguished Professor of Psychology Craig Anderson, Assistant Professor of Psychology Douglas Gentile, and doctoral student Katherine Buckley have shared the results of three new studies in their book, Violent Video Game Effects on Children and Adolescents.

“We were surprised to find that exposure to violent video games was a better predictor of the students’ own violent behavior than their gender or their beliefs about violence,” said Anderson. “Although gender aggressive personality and beliefs about violence all predict aggressive and violent behavior, violent video game play still made an additional difference."

Quoted from Ebiology News at http://www.ebiologynews.com/1752.html

Digital Deprivation

Growing up digitally may involve sensory deprivation. Children who walk a digital rain forest are prisoners of a virtual reality that in many ways echoes what T.S. Eliot referred to as The Waste Land way back in 1922.

What are the roots that clutch, what branches grow
Out of this stony rubbish? Son of man,
You cannot say, or guess, for you know only
A heap of broken images, where the sun beats,
And the dead tree gives no shelter, the cricket no relief,
And the dry stone no sound of water.

Curiously, the phrase "digital deprivation" is usually employed to describe the condition of those on the unfortunate side of the digital divide, those supposedly impoverished because they cannot Google or Wikipeed their way through life's important questions. In this article, the term refers to an arid and impoverished existence saturated with artificial digital fare.

Those who substitute FaceBook for face-to-face communities suffer many of the consequences explored by MIT Professor Sherry Turkle in her now classic study Second Self: Computers and the Human Spirit, first published (ironically) in 1984.

The Alliance for Childhood explores this sensory deprivation in its publication, Towards a New Literacy of Technology. In a chapter titles, "What’s Wrong with a High-Tech Childhood?" the group outlines a series of major threats to children posed by an overemphasis on technologies.

Computers, headsets, and cell phones have
made it possible for children and parents almost
to avoid each other’s company entirely, even
when sitting next to each other.

The chapter headings illustrate the scope of the problem:

  • The Values of the “Money World”
  • Technology Illiteracy: A Growing Health Hazard
  • Childhood Takes Time
  • Screened In from the Real World
  • Electronic Power Can Exceed Children’s Emotional Maturity
  • The Effects of High-Tech Life on Children’s Bodies
  • Childhood as an Environmental Issue
  • Character Miseducation

The authors conclude the chapter with this appeal:

A high-tech childhood is inadequate
preparation for the real challenges of civic
engagement in a high-tech democracy. We join
with thoughtful parents, educators, and policymakers
urging immediate action for social change on
behalf of a healthy future for children and for the
world they will inherit.

A Digital Pied Piper?

Even though his analysis is weak and his message insulting, many technology cheerleaders have adopted Prensky's language to describe the relationship between various generations and things digital. His view is intellectually bankrupt, but simple-minded thinking is often attractive.

Prensky's labels are crude, inaccurate and based on no data. His gross generalizations lump complex segments together as if identical.

Digital natives, according to Prensky, are somehow blessed by birthing after the advent of the digital world. For Prensky, this late arrival signals a curious state of grace that old folks, evidently, can never attain. He never considers the possibility that this immersion in things digital might actually represent sensory deprivation or disadvantage.

Real fifteen year old humans are quite different from each other, a fact that Prensky did not take the time to study or notice. Some love things digital. Some are more interested in a horse or a dog or a walk along the shore. If you took the time to study a million teens, you would find dozens of different patterns and passions. Prensky lumps them together as one cohesive digital phalanx.

The original Pied Piper, it should be remembered, stole the town's children away when the Mayor failed to pay him for leading the rats out of town.

Check out Robert Browning's version at http://www.pitt.edu/~dash/hameln.html#browning

Beware False Prophets, Visionaries and Evangelists

The field of educational technology has suffered a surfeit of fools and poseurs claiming to be futurists and visionaries. They are often quick to criticize those who fail to heed their piping or buy their quicksilver. For several decades now they have heralded the arrival of various toys and technologies as if they signal the advent of a Brave New World.

Many of these prophets and visionaries have been whistling Dixie or, to borrow the words from the Alliance for Childhood, selling us fool's gold.


"Digital Natives, Digital Immigrants." Marc Prensky. On the Horizon (NCB University Press, Vol. 9 No. 5, October 2001)

Fool's Gold: A Critical Look at Computers in Childhood. The Alliance for Childhood.  October, 2000. http://www.allianceforchildhood.net/projects/computers/

"Generation M - Media in the Lives of 8–18 Year-0lds." March 2005. A Kaiser Family Foundation Study. Authors: Donald F. Roberts, Ph.D., Stanford University; Ulla G. Foehr, M.A., Stanford University; Victoria Rideout, M.A., Kaiser Family Foundation www.kff.org.

Towards a New Literacy of Technology. Alliance for Childhood. 2004. http://www.allianceforchildhood.net/projects/computers/

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