ITU Debunks Myth: Young People Aren’t Necessarily Digital Natives

Report Says Only 30 Percent of People 15-24 Worldwide Considered Digital Natives

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Worldwide, many young people should not be considered as “digital natives” (a term coined in 2001 by Marc Prensky), according to a new report from the International Telecommunications Union (ITU).

Clark Quinn and our own Chad Udell also smashed this myth at DevLearn in October.

The ITU report defines a digital native as a networked youth aged 15-24 with five or more years of online experience.

And, even if they are considered a digital native, that doesn’t mean that young people are good at judging the quality of the information that they access online.

ITU graph - Digital natives as percent of population

Click or tap to enlarge.

This last point is supported by Bing Pan, a business professor at the College of Charleston, who designed an experiment in which he tested students’ abilities to verify the validity of Google search results. His study showed students still favored the top links, even after Pan adjusted them. “As Pan realized,” writes Clive Thompson in his book, “Smarter Than You Think,” “the students were not actively evaluating the actual relevance of the results. They just trusted the machine.”

Thompson highlights another study’s 102 Northwestern University students who never bothered to check authors’ credentials on a website. “(M)ore than a third of college students were unaware that search engines include paid-for links in their results.”

He blames this gap in knowledge on a lack of search literacy, which is not taught in schools.

“This is surpassingly ironic because teaching search literacy is a golden opportunity to teach critical thinking: What am I being told? What motivations does this person have for telling me this? Does the information match other things I know?”

The ITU report cites these statistics to support its position:

“In 2012, there were 363 million digital natives out of a world population of around 7 billion. Thus, across the globe, some 5.2 per cent of the world’s total population qualified as digital natives. At the same time, this accounts for 30 percent of the global youth population aged 15-24. If all digital natives came together to make up their own country, it would be slightly bigger than the United States, the world’s third most populous nation. The sum of all digital natives also represents more than the entire population of Brazil and Mexico combined.”

Low Internet usage rates in developing countries with large youth populations, reports the ITU, are the primary reason why the majority of young people around the globe should not be considered digital natives.

Additionally, only about half of the world’s population was covered by a 3G network toward the end of 2012, despite the fact that “almost all people on Earth live somewhere within reach of a mobile-cellular signal.”

A 3G network is “necessary to qualify as mobile broadband and provide high-speed access to the Internet.”

However, the ITU says it expects the population of digital natives to double within the next five years.

“Over the past five years,” the report says, “Internet usage has increased significantly in the developing world, from 11.9 percent in 2007 to 30.7 percent in 2012. This report has shown that 53 percent of today’s young Internet users in the developing world do not yet qualify as digital natives.”

Of course, – a tech supergroup we’ve mentioned whose founding partners consist of Facebook, Ericsson, MediaTek, Nokia, Opera, Qualcomm, and Samsung – has been working to bring Internet access to the 5 billion people throughout the globe that go without online connectivity.

So, too, has Google. Since 2010, the Google X research lab has spent millions of dollars on Project Loon:

“Project Loon balloons would circle the globe in rings, connecting wirelessly to the Internet via a handful of ground stations, and pass signals to one another in a kind of daisy chain. Each would act as a wireless station for an area about 25 miles in diameter below it, using a variant of Wi-Fi to provide broadband to anyone with a Google-issued antenna. Voilà!—low-cost Internet to those who otherwise wouldn’t have it. The smartphones to connect to it are quickly becoming cheap.”

(Source: Wired)

In addition to the lack of Internet usage, the ITU suggests that the newness of various devices – laptops, mobile phones, and tablets – has been a barrier for many young people.

“(Information and communications technologies) are a fairly new phenomenon,” the report states. “Back in 2007, by which time young people had to be online in order to be considered digital natives today (needing at least five years of experience), Internet penetration was relatively low: in 2007, only 21 percent of the global population was online.”

The ITU’s Measuring the Information Society report has been published annually since 2009.

If you’re experiencing some issues with getting youth in your workplace up to speed, we can help you with a mobile strategy to solve this problem. Please contact us.

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Adam Bockler is the communications manager for Float, responsible for all of Float's marketing initiatives. In addition, Adam is a certified DDP Yoga Level 1 instructor, a certified personal trainer, a martial arts instructor, and a graduate of the Black and Brave Wrestling Academy.

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On November 19, 2013
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