The Internet Generation Prefers the Real World

August 10, 2010 by Thad McIlroy

How novel to imagine that youngsters aren’t novel.

The title of this entry is an English translation of the name of a German article appearing on August 6 in Spiegel Online. I don’t read Der Spiegel, the largest German newsweekly, in German or in English. Fortunately my friend Bob McArthur does, and brought this to my attention.

The article could be read quickly as merely another superficial piece on young people and the Internet. But this one is decidedly different. Rather than treating youth as a mysterious cult, the digital natives that we explorers can’t quite grok, the article focuses on establishing a simple singular point. “New research shows that the majority of children and teenagers are not the Web-savvy digital natives of legend,” states the lede. Instead they are “more interested in their real-world friends than Facebook.”

Could this be possible? You mean they don’t have secret decoder rings? The article is based mainly on some new research out of the Hans Bredow Institute entitled Growing Up With the Social Web. The presentation is available online, but only in German. Spiegel offers a single chart in English.

Source: Spiegel Online

I do recommend reading the original, but the key point appears best in these two paragraphs:

A small group of writers, consultants and therapists thrives on repeating the same old mantra, namely that our youth is shaped through and through by the online medium in which it grew up. They claim that our schools must, therefore, offer young people completely new avenues — surely traditional education cannot reach this generation any longer, they argue.

There is little evidence to back such theories up, however. Rather than conducting surveys, these would-be visionaries base their arguments on impressive individual cases of young Internet virtuosos. As other, more serious researchers have since discovered, such exceptions say very little about the generation as a whole, and they are now avidly trying to correct the mistakes of the past.

My restatement of the piece would be “Digital non-natives make the same error made by explorers throughout history: both ennobling the savage and at the same time demonizing him.” Turns out the native is human, just like you and me. And s/he doesn’t think that foraging, hunting and “native” dances are remarkable.

Of course consultants like Don Tapscott and Marc Prensky feed us the charismatic guru’s diet of what we want to believe: that digital natives(quite a good term: the secret to success for gurus is coining terms like this and making them sticky) are a superspecies, i.e. able to find technology to be somehow commonplace in a world full of frightening marvels.

They (and we) did not consider that for the natives the marvels are completely taken for granted, thereby losing all mystical powers. What remains are the day-to-day social concerns of all teens, made somewhat simpler to navigate with texting, Facebook, etc. And as always, there is the challenge of learning to use educational tools — whether textbooks or computers & wikis — as effectively as possible. Just because kids grew up with technology doesn’t mean they know how to use it well. And their elders were previously in no position to offer credible advice.

A breakthrough!

I’ll be interested to see how long it takes for this notion to penetrate the U.S. media. I think that the big media that dominate the dialog and the vendors they serve have a vested interest in clinging to Tapscott & Prensky’s anthropological myth-making. People and companies spend big bucks on the extraordinary. Everyday utensils don’t command a price premium.

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  • Hugo E. Martin

    Aug 10th, 2010 : 9:51 PM

    The Internet, Mobile are an integrated part of the real world!

    It is (almost) funny to read from so called “experts”, that the so called “Internet generation” does not use YouTube, Instant Messenger, Google, Facebook, etc. properly. OMG

    The presentation you link has been posted two years (plus) ago

  • Thad McIlroy

    Aug 10th, 2010 : 11:22 PM

    Thanks for your comment, much appreciated. To quote again from the Spiegel article:

    “Recent research into the way people conduct Internet searches confirms Scheppler’s observations. A major study conducted by the British Library came to the sobering conclusion that the ‘net generation’ hardly knows what to look for, quickly scans over results, and has a hard time assessing relevance. ‘The information literacy of young people has not improved with the widening access to technology,’ the authors wrote.”

    There’s more in the article, linked to above.

    Thanks for catching the date on the presentation. I’ve notified the study’s authors of this posting. I hope they will be able to direct us to the April 2010 presentation slides that are discussed in the article.

  • Hugo E. Martin

    Aug 11th, 2010 : 12:13 AM

    Lets check and compare the results, when the British Library takes the same young people and ask them to do the same job with the help of the (printed) Encyclopedia Britannica

    The mentioned Hans Bredow Institut stuff seems like their research from 2008. Here a few links

    Heranwachsen mit dem Social Web
    Zur Rolle von Web 2.0 -Angeboten im Alltag von Jugendlichen und jungen Erwachsenen
    (April 2009)

    Short presentation in English:
    Growing up in the Social Web

    Social Web Angebote im Alltag von Jugendlichen

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    Aug 11th, 2010 : 12:25 AM

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  • Thad McIlroy

    Aug 11th, 2010 : 8:40 AM

    Thanks for the links, Hugo.

  • Jan

    Aug 17th, 2010 : 11:20 PM

    Thad, thanks for the article and the links to our study. It is indeed “old data” – the representative survey was conducted in Oct/Nov 2008, the complete study published in Mid-2009.
    There was some press reactions/mentions last year, and we did a lot of presentations to academic and general public audiences; Hugo thanks for the links to slideshare!

    I have no clue why the Spiegel article is implicitly framing our results as “new research”; they have not spoken to us for the story. But having said that, I agree with your statement “Just because kids grew up with technology doesn’t mean they know how to use it well.” – that was part of our results and is probably still true, even two years after our field research… 😉

  • Thad McIlroy

    Aug 18th, 2010 : 11:59 PM

    Jan: Thanks very much for clarifying the dates.

    I would guess that Spiegel is implicitly framing your results as “new research” only because they couldn’t justify publishing a long article on “old research.”

    New or old, it’s new in North America, and much appreciated.