“The myths of the digital native and the multitasker”

One common rhetorical device heard in technology circles – including eHealth circles – is the idea that those born after 1980, or maybe 1984, or maybe 1993, or maybe 2000, or maybe 2010 (you get the picture) are “digital natives” – everyone else is “digital immigrant” In the current edition of Teaching and Teacher Education, Kirschner and de Bruyckere have an excellent paper on this myth, and the related myth of multitasking.

The “highlights” of the paper (I am not sure if these are selected by the authors or by the editors – UPDATE: see comment by Paul Kirschner below!) are pretty to the point:


Information-savvy digital natives do not exist.

Learners cannot multitask; they task switch which negatively impacts learning.

Educational design assuming these myths hinders rather than helps learning.

The full article is via subscription/library online, and this recent post on the blog of Nature discusses this paper and others on this myth. This is Kirschner and de Bruyckere’s abstract:

Current discussions about educational policy and practice are often embedded in a mind-set that considers students who were born in an age of omnipresent digital media to be fundamentally different from previous generations of students. These students have been labelled digital natives and have been ascribed the ability to cognitively process multiple sources of information simultaneously (i.e., they can multitask). As a result of this thinking, they are seen by teachers, educational administrators, politicians/policy makers, and the media to require an educational approach radically different from that of previous generations. This article presents scientific evidence showing that there is no such thing as a digital native who is information-skilled simply because (s)he has never known a world that was not digital. It then proceeds to present evidence that one of the alleged abilities of students in this generation, the ability to multitask, does not exist and that designing education that assumes the presence of this ability hinders rather than helps learning. The article concludes by elaborating on possible implications of this for education/educational policy.

The paper is one of those trenchantly entertaining ones academia throws up every so often. For instance here the authors are on the origins of the “digital native” terminology (and “homo zappiens”, a new one on me):


ccording to Prensky (2001), who coined the term, digital natives
constitute an ever-growing group of children, adolescents,
and nowadays young adults (i.e., those born after 1984; the official
beginning of this generation) who have been immersed in digital
technologies all their lives. The mere fact that they have been
exposed to these digital technologies has, according to him,
endowed this growing group with specific and even unique characteristics
that make its members completely different from those
growing up in previous generations. The name given to those born
before 1984 – the year that the 8-bit video game saw the light of
day, though others use 1980 – is digital immigrant. Digital natives
are assumed to have sophisticated technical digital skills and
learning preferences for which traditional education is unprepared
and unfit. Prensky coined the term, not based upon extensive
research into this generation and/or the careful study of those
belonging to it, but rather upon a rationalisation of phenomena and
behaviours that he had observed. In his own words, he saw children
“surrounded by and using computers, videogames, digital music
players, video cams, cell phones, and all the other toys and tools of
the digital age” (2001, p.1). Based only upon these observations, he
assumed that these children understood what they were doing,
were using their devices effectively and efficiently, and based upon
this that it would be good to design education that allows them to
do this. Prensky was not alone in this. Veen and Vrakking (2006),
for example, went a step further coining the catchy name homo
zappi€ens to refer to a new breed of learners that has developed e
without either help from or instruction by others e those metacognitive
skills necessary for enquiry-based learning, discovery based
learning, networked learning, experiential learning, collaborative
learning, active learning, self-organisation and self regulation,
problem solving, and making their own implicit (i.e.,
tacit) and explicit knowledge explicit to others.

The saw that children are invariably more tech savvy then their parents is also a myth:

Looking at pupils younger than university students, the largescale
EU Kids Online report (Livingstone, Haddon, Gorzig, € &
Olafsson, 2011 ), placed the term ‘digital native’ in first place on
its list of the ten biggest myths about young people and technology.
They state: “Children knowing more than their parents has been
136 P.A. Kirschner, P. De Bruyckere / Teaching and Teacher Education 67 (2017) 135e142
exaggerated … Talk of digital natives obscures children’s need for
support in developing digital skills” and that “… only one in five
[children studied] used a file-sharing site or created a pet/avatar
and half that number wrote a blog … While social networking
makes it easier to upload content, most children use the internet for
ready-made, mass produced content” (p. 42). While the concept of
the digital native explicitly and/or implicitly assumes that the
current generation of children is highly digitally literate, it is then
rather strange to note that many curricula in many countries on
many continents (e.g., North America, Europe) see information and
technology literacy as 21st century skills that are core curriculum
goals at the end of the educational process and that need to be

Two more recent studies show that the supposed digital divide
is a myth in itself. A study carried out by Romero, Guitert, Sangra,
and Bullen (2013) found that it was, in fact, older students (>30
years and thus born before 1984) who exhibited the characteristics
attributed to digital natives more than their younger counterparts.
In their research, 58% of their students were older than 30 years
who “show the characteristics of this [Net Generation profile]
claimed by the literature because, on analysing their habits, they
can be labelled as ICT users more than digital immigrants” (p. 176).
In a study on whether digital natives are more ‘technology savvy’
than their middle school science teachers, Wang, Hsu, Campbell,
Coster, and Longhurst (2014) conclude that this is not the case.

The authors are not arguing that curricula and teaching methods do not need to change and evolve, but that the myth of the digital native should not be the reason for doing so:

Finally, this non-existence of digital natives makes clear that one
should be wary about claims to change education because this
generation of young people is fundamentally different from previous
generations of learners in how they learn/can learn because
of their media usage (De Bruyckere, Hulshof, & Kirschner, 2015).
The claim of the existence of a generation of digital natives, thus,
cannot be used as either a motive or an excuse to implement
pedagogies such as enquiry-based learning, discovery-based
learning, networked learning, experiential learning, collaborative
learning, active learning, self-organisation and self-regulation or
problem solving as Veen and Vrakking (2006) argued. This does not
mean education should neither evolve nor change, but rather that
proposed changes should be evidence informed both in the reasons
for the change and the proposed changes themselves, something
P.A. Kirschner, P. De Bruyckere / Teaching and Teacher Education 67 (2017) 135e142 137
that ‘digital natives’ is not.
The non-existence of digital natives is definitely not the ‘reason’
why students today are disinterested at and even ‘alienated’ by
school. This lack of interest and alienation may be the case, but the
causes stem from quite different things such as the fact that
diminished concentration and the loss of the ability to ignore
irrelevant stimuli may be attributed to constant task switching
between different devices (Loh & Kanai, 2016; Ophir, Nass, &
Wagner, 2009; Sampasa-Kanyinga & Lewis, 2015). This, however,
is the topic of a different article.

The paper also deals with multi-tasking. Firstly they examine the nature of attention. “Multi-tasking” is an impossibility from this point of view, unless the tasks are automatic behaviours. They cite a range of research which, unsurprisingly enough, link heavy social media usage (especially with the user instantly replying to stimuli) with poorer educational outcomes:

Ophir et al. (2009) in a study in which university students who
identified themselves as proficient multitaskers were asked to
concentrate on rectangular stimuli of one colour on a computer
monitor and ignore irrelevant stimuli entering their screen of a
different colour observed that
heavy media multitaskers are more susceptible to interference
from irrelevant environmental stimuli and from irrelevant
representations in memory. This led to the surprising result that
heavy media multitaskers performed worse on a test of taskswitching
ability, likely because of reduced ability to filter out
interference from the irrelevant task set (p. 15583).
Ophir et al. (2009) concluded that faced with of distractors,
heavy multitaskers were slower in detecting changes in visual
patterns, were more susceptible to false recollections of the distractors
during a memory task, and were slower in task-switching.
Heavy multitaskers were less able than light/occasional multitaskers
to volitionally restrain their attention only to task relevant

The authors specifically warn caution about the drive that students bring their own device to school.

Why is this paper so important? As the authors show (and the author of the Nature blog post linked to above also observes) this is not a new finding. There are many pieces out there, both academic and journalistic, on the myth of the digital native. This paper specifically locates the dicussion in education and in teacher training (they say much also on the issue of supposedly “digital native” teachers) and is a trenchant warning on the magical thinking that has grown up around technology.

There are obvious parallels with health and technology. The messianic, evangelical approach to healthtech is replete with its own assumptions about digital natives, and magical thinking about how easily they navigate online worlds. Using a handful of social medial tools or apps with visual interactive systems does not translate into a deep knowledge of the online world, or indeed a wisdom about it (or anything else)


4 thoughts on ““The myths of the digital native and the multitasker”

  1. Reblogged this on Séamus Sweeney and commented:

    Reblogging this here as the message of this paper – that “digital natives” and the ability to “multitask” are both myths, with potentially harmful consequences – is of wide importance, beyond education (or healthcare)


  2. Hi Paul, Thank you so much for the reply (and also clearing up something I always wondered about!)

    I’m hoping to write a blog piece on this issue in the world of health systems IT, or what is sometimes called eHealth… the picture there is roughly as you can imagine!



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