Digital Natives

February 22, 2009

A good example of a digital native is the little girl that Microsoft recently brought on its ads, Kylie. She is 4 years-old and she knows how to upload pictures, color correct them, and e-mail them to her family. In addition to her cuteness, the ad is compelling because presents a very plausible circumstance: yes, a four-year-old could easily execute the same tasks as Kylie – if growing up in the same technological environment, naturally. It would not necessarily happen because of the usability of the Windows Gallery Interface, but because kids like her are born digital.

Palfrey and Gasser’s book encompasses different aspects of the digital natives’ lives, ranging from construction of their online identities to their role as political activists inside the society. The 375 page work employes diversified research methodologies drawn from social science, psychology, neuroscience, developmental pediatrics, and information sciences fields, as well as the application of focus groups and interviews with digital natives. The book ‘s goal is “to present the good and the bad in context and to suggest things that all of us – parents, teachers, leaders of companies, and lawmakers – can do to manage this extraordinary transition to a globally connected society without shutting the whole thing down” (p.9). Born Digital is divided into 13 chapters and 12 topics. For a more succinct division I will group these topics into three main parts: digital identities, digital native’s roles, and digital information.

Digital Identities
To the authors, new technologies bring changes to our understanding of identity, and as a consequence it is necessary to distinguish personal identity from social identity. On one hand, digital natives – those born after 1980 – have several personal identities spread over different profiles, which can be constantly updated. However, their social identities can be seen from different perspectives and contexts, leading to more risks associated with the formation of this social identity. The main point here is that the social identity may not represent the personal identity of these young people.

According to psychologists, the reason why teenagers share a lot of information about themselves on the Internet stems from the “disclosure decision model” and reciprocity. The disclosure model emphasizes that the way a person shares information is based on the evaluation of rewards and risks. The revelation of information is projected to reach goals, such as social approval, intimacy, or relief of distress. The idea of reciprocity is that if a teenager shares information with others she imagines others will also reciprocate and share information with her. The authors emphasize that the difficulties of forming an identity in a digital age are especially related instability, because teenagers have less ability to control how others perceive them, and insecurity, because they cannot control who access their digital identities in a given moment.

It is important to point out that the authors differentiate between digital identity and digital dossier. Digital identity is composed of elements that the individual contributes voluntarily and elements other people contribute about him or her, and digital dossier is information associated with a name, which can be disclosed to third parties or not. All entries in search engines and in online retailers’ sites, and other digital data that is not necessarily accessible – like medical exams, are “personally identifiable information” and part of their dossiers. The authors’ main concern is that every connected person has a digital dossier, and those who were born digital have a complete digital dossier. As the authors note: “The information is held in many different hands, and every part that has access to it is subject to its own rules about what can be done with it. Young people are not asked to make informed decisions about the data collected and stored about them, and even if they were, they would be in no position to make those decisions” (p.42-43).

Another worry related to this immense online exposure is privacy and safety. According to Palfrey and Gasser, “most young people are extremely likely to leave something behind in cyberspace that will become a lot like a tattoo – something connected to them that they cannot get rid of later in life, even if they want to, without a great deal of difficulty” (p. 53). Besides giving too much information to other people, who will make their own judgments on their identities, digital natives also give their information to corporations and institutions, and these entities do not always protect their privacy. The authors suggest that companies that host services used by many people should build secure systems, and teachers and parents should try to teach digital natives how to behave in online environments.

Regarding safety, the authors affirm that one of the greatest harms of the online environment is psychological, i.e., exposure to something that children are not ready to see, such as graphic violence and sex. Children usually go online without adult supervision, so they are less likely to have an adult nearby to help them understand disturbing material. Another common problem is cyberbulling or the intentional use of any digital medium to harm others. Palfrey and Gasser write that the Internet facilitates this because children in the early learning stage of social interaction often use visual and auditory cues to guide their behavior, and they don’t necessarily have these cues online. They also point out that some children and even adults are influenced by the “disinhibition effect” caused by an imagined absent identity. To mitigate these problems, the authors recommend better digital media literacy for children, teachers, and parents, as well as more incentives to technology companies and law-enforcement to keep these kids safer.

Digital Natives’ Roles
Just as digital natives have several online identities, they also have the opportunity to play diversified roles online. The book touches on how they are creating, innovating, learning, acting, and perhaps – not so proudly, aggressing and pirating.

From this population, Mark Zuckerberg (Facebook), Shawn Fanning (Napster), and Chad Hurley (YouTube) were responsible for the creation of great online successes. However, most of the content produced by other digital natives is of the “unspectacular sort” (p.113). Kids are mostly engaged in blogging, online game-playing, instant messaging, and online social networks. To the authors, the importance of these activities is not only their uniqueness, but also the opportunity for learning, expressing emotions, creating autonomy, and even in changing their political views.

In some cases, digital natives get involved in political campaigns and, most commonly, social services. Some critics argue that participation in online social networks’ groups doesn’t necessarily mean anything. For those critics this kind of attitude “is nothing more than a convenient way to make a statement, the digital equivalent of a “Save the Whales” bumper sticker” (p.263). Nonetheless, the authors mention TakingIT-Global, a famous action group that organizes over 200,000 young people to take action in their local communities, not only online.

Another important factor of this creation process is the teens’ new possibility for reflecting on the news through comments and blogging. The Internet enables citizens to criticize the news, and also modify the way public events are told. The authors reference Terry Fisher’s article “Semiotic Democracy,” which stated that “in a semiotic democracy, a greater number of people are able to tell the stories of their times. This broader group of people participate in the ‘recoding’ and ‘reworking’ of cultural meaning” (p.266).

Unfortunately, not all activities in the virtual environment are beneficial to young people. One negative role they play is the aggressor. The authors observe that violent images in our society are not only present on the Internet but also in television, movies, and games. The sole difference is that the Internet is used as an outlet to express aggressive thoughts. The authors explore the General Aggression Model (GAM), a theoretical model studied by several disciplines that tries to explain why violence seen through media increases violence in real lives. According to this model, mimicking of aggressive behaviors increases if the executor the child observes is similar or attractive to him. Also, a stimulus in the environment can trigger an existing set of violent thoughts and make these emotions a long-lasting part of the child’s regular mental state. The third aspect considered in this model is that violence on screen is arousing for kids. All of this applies to the Internet and the superrealistic scenes of violence in online games.

The last role that I will describe in this section is the pirate. Many digital natives don’t know that file-sharing is illegal and those who know often continue doing it because they don’t see any harm. According to the authors, 66% of the peer to peer users originate from the US and about 76% of the surveyed American college students believe that piracy of music or movies was acceptable in some or all instances. The solutions proposed by the authors for the piracy problem include less intervention of judges and lawmakers to facilitate resolution through market competition, more positive use of law (example: use of Creative Commons), better alignment of incentives (YouTube could make deals with content owners) and, more significantly, children’s education.

Digital Information
The authors observe that in 2007, 161 billion gigabytes of digital content were created. It is equivalent of 3 million times the amount of information all books ever written. Information overload is one of their main concerns about the Internet. “There are limits, in cognitive terms, to how much information people can process. A person’s short-term memory, for instance, can hold roughly seven items at once. Our minds have an estimated maximum processing capacity of 126 bits per second” (p.186). They go on to assert that information overload is considered one of the psychological diseases of digital age. Symptoms of this disease include increased heart rates, increased cholesterol, migraines, retarded reading skills, and restlessness. Psychologists affirm that when information cannot be processed, it causes confusion, frustration, panic, or even paralysis.

Specialists also assert that multi-tasking is not necessarily advantageous because kids learn better if they pay full attention to what they want to remember. The authors’ recommendations to alleviate this problem include better selection of websites (better design and color choices), more effective search engines, use of RSS feeds, and use of recommendation systems. They also advise technology companies to create tools to help everyone to better manage information, and government to work with technologists to generate better navigation and filtering systems.

An additional problem is that children have greater difficulty to distinguish between good and bad information than adults. Specialists affirm that it is because their brains are not fully developed, they usually have shorter attention span, and they have fewer experiences comparing the information they are assessing. Palfrey and Gasser suggest some actions to deal with this problem: creation of social norms within communities to promote quality of information (example: Wikipedia user norms), well designed code that help digital natives judge information quality (examples: kid-friendly browsers, filters, search engine for kids), enhancement of education programs and strategies for children by the government, and parent and teacher tutoring.

Born Digital explains broad concerns about the use of the Internet by digital natives and presents recommendations for parents, teachers, companies, and governments to address this problematic period of transition. Even though the authors suggest an extended number of measures for different parties to protect children, encourage their creativity, and increase respect for copyrights, they emphasize the importance of parents and teachers to educate them regarding the “right ways” to navigate the Internet. To me, the greatest contradiction of this book is that it appears not to have been made primarily to understand those who were born digital, but to teach those who were not born digital. It didactically explains the concepts of social networks, blogging, RSS feeds, file-sharing, online games, and other Internet activities. If you still remember Kylie in the Microsoft ad, she was presented as doing everything by herself. And it seemed very natural.

Palfrey, J.; Gasser, U. (2008). Born Digital: Understanding the first generation of digital natives. New York: Basic Books.