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The Digital Divide: Generation Gap or a Chasm?

Innovation Times

Posted by JR Reagan on April 26, 2013

Follow JR @IdeaXplorer Connect with JR


The Greatest Generation. The Silent Generation. Baby Boomers. Gen X. Millennials. This brief history of U.S. culture now has a new demographic to add to its list: the post-Internet generation.

Instead of being born with silver spoons in their mouths, they were raised with mobile devices in their chubby toddler hands. They don’t know a world without laptops, tablets, and cell phones.

The next generation

They’ve been called many things: Generation Z, the Always-On Generation, the Net Generation, the Digital Generation, the Video GameGeneration, and Generation Text.

What does it mean to be a digital native? CNN’s Oliver Koy notes that “The post-millennial "digital native," a term coined by U.S. author Marc Prensky in 2001 is emerging as the globe's dominant demographic, while the "digital immigrant," becomes a relic of a previous time. Koy continues to state that “Prensky defines digital natives as those born into an innate "new culture" while the digital immigrants are old-world settlers, who have lived in the analogue age and immigrated to the digital world.”

Don’t try to dig what we all say

The differences between digital immigrants and digital natives are many, according to Prensky and others. Older digital immigrants text reluctantly, preferring instead to use the phone or speak face-to-face. They process information in a linear style, instead of switching from source to source at warp speeds.

Digital immigrants even speak with an accent. Though their mother tongue is still English, to digital natives, it’s as indecipherable as any foreign language:

  • I have to call my travel agent.
  • Go get the dictionary if you don’t know how to spell it.
  • Let’s go check out a book from the library.
  • I need to get some stamps from the Post Office.
  • Get the map out of the glove compartment.

Just like “horseless carriages” and “sock hops” sound like nonsense to digital natives, phrases like those above will send them straight to online search engines to find out what an immigrant is talking about.

Natives vs. immigrants

Digital natives change media platforms at a rate of 27 times an hour, according to a Time Inc study from April 2012. The study biometrically monitored both digital natives and immigrants for 300 hours to determine emotional engagement and visual attention.

Other significant findings from the study? Natives have a lower emotional response to content, because they experience it briefly and simultaneously. Once bored, they move on. And when natives move around, their devices are never far away—65% of natives take their devices with them when they go into another room, versus 41% of immigrants.

"This study strongly suggests a transformation in the time spent, patterns of visual attention and emotional consequences of modern media consumption that is rewiring the brains of a generation of Americans like never before," said Dr. Carl Marci, CEO and Chief Scientist, Innerscope Research, who performed the biometric monitoring for the study. "Storytellers and marketers in this digital age will continue to face an increasingly complex environment with a higher bar for engaging an audience of consumers."

United we stand?

Here’s something to chew on, though. It was digital immigrants who invented the very technologies that define digital natives. Though they might not have had a social media page in utero, most digital immigrants are hardly Luddites.

In the decade since Prensky gave name to a generation, a number of peer-reviewed studies have questioned whether the digital divide is actually the Grand Canyon he proposed, or is, instead, a “construct supported primarily by the strength of its own publicity.” Even Prensky has reevaluated his position several times, adding that experience with technology can turn older people into digital natives.

Though the face of social media is one of youth, that hasn’t stopped older people from amassing online friends or using mobile devices.

They’re retired, but not retiring

According to the Pew Internet & American Life Project (June, 2012), 70% of seniors own cell phones, up from 57% just two years ago. While 82% of American adults (18+) use the Internet every day, only a slightly smaller majority of seniors (70%) do, though this number decreases greatly after the age of 75.

Perhaps to their children’s and grandchildren’s chagrin, many seniors have discovered that that while email’s good, social media is better. Almost a third of Internet users age 65+ use social media sites—and 18% of them log in daily to check status reports.

Other seniors turn to “nanatechnology” (not nanotechnology) to improve their quality of life. By the year 2050, it’s projected that more than 20% of U.S. citizens will be over the age of 65—a whopping 88 million people. Groups like MIT’s AgeLab are designing innovative devices and programs so our aging population will be able to enjoy life beyond expectations.

Perhaps the natives, born into a digital world created by their ancestors, will design the very tools that allow their parents and grandparents to remain objective at any age.

A generation gap, defined

There are probably as many definitions of a “generation gap” as there are generations, so the idea of a divide—in this case, digital natives versus immigrants—is really nothing new.

William Safire aptly nailed the concept of a generation gap as either “a frustrating lack of communication between young and old, or a useful stretch of time that separates cultures within a society, allowing them to develop their own character” (Safire’s Political Dictionary, p. 274).

Before Safire, Winston Churchill had this to say of “the gap of the generation,” (My Early Life, 1930): “You will make all kinds of mistakes, but as long as you are generous and true, and also fierce, you cannot hurt the world or even seriously distress her. She was made to be wooed and won by youth.”

I couldn’t have said it better myself.


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