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The Digital Natives are Growing Restless

by Melanie Gallo, PhD

How old were you when you owned your first mobile phone? Was it about the size (and weight) of a brick and carried around in a bag? Or was it installed in a car with one of those springy home phone style chords permanently attached? I tend to be somewhat of a gadget and technology buff so I have been collecting mini radios, cd players, laptops (Mac and PC), cell phones, palm pilots (remember those?), watches (digital and chronograph), ipods, iphones, ipads, and every type of accessory that you can think of since the mid 80's.  So I may be an exception.  It's a sickness - I know. 

However, today's generation of young people is giving us a run for our money when it comes to technology. About 5 years ago I was at work when I received a text from my then elementary-aged son.  "Hi mommy" it said. Not so strange right?  Well imagine my surprise upon receipt of said text, as I knew that he didn't even have a phone!  He had taken it upon himself to "research" how to text me from his computer and had succeeded. These digital natives are growing restless and we are going to have to keep up! 

Digital Natives

Like my son, the youth of today or the "Digital Natives" are described by psychologists as being today's students - kindergarten through college - representing "the first generations to grow up with new technologies like cell phones, and all the other toys and tools of the digital age."  In fact, the average college graduate today has spent less than 5,000 hours of their lives reading, but has dedicated upwards of 10,000 hours playing video games (not to mention 20,000 hours watching TV). Computer games, email, the Internet, cell phones and instant messaging are all key parts of their lives.  

As a result, Digital Natives are used to getting their information really fast. They thrive on instant gratification and frequent rewards. They like to multi-task and they prefer for their brains to be doing multiple things at one time. They also tend to have a preference of graphics before text rather than the opposite. The Natives also prefer random access (like the hypertext links embedded all throughout this post), and they function best when networked. They thrive on instant gratification and frequent rewards, and spend more time multitasking and moving from activity to activity as a result of reduced attention spans.  

Digital Immigrants

The rest of us, on the other hand, are "Digital Immigrants".  We are the segment of the population who were not born during the "digital age" but have at some point later in our lives, adopted and embraced most aspects of the new technology. The irony is that over time, we created this digital world in which they are the "natives", yet we are the "immigrants". 

We all tend to program our devices to interrupt us and let us know when anything of interest is happening—we set them to ding, ring, flash, buzz and pop up when a new call or message comes in, when it is time for an appointment, or when a friend has just posted new pictures on social media.  Unfortunately, as the famed technology psychology researcher, Dr. Larry Rosen noted, “using our technological devices . . . may be permanently ruining our focused attention.”  3 factors that link information communication technology exposure to the destruction of attention control are:

(1) distractions (like those interruptions mentioned above)

(2) Cognitive (mental) overload

(3) Continuous partial attention or continually staying busy—keeping tabs on everything while never truly focusing on anything 

The Immigrant Accent

One key distinction between natives and immigrants is that we have different "accents".   In other words, as Digital Immigrants learn to adapt to our environment, we typically retain, to some degree, our "accent," or our connection to the past. The “digital immigrant accent” can be seen in such things as looking to the Internet for information second rather than first or reading the manual for a software program rather than expecting that the program itself will teach us to use it. The Immigrants print out emails (or they have their assistant print it out for them which denotes an even “thicker” accent), they print out documents written on the computer in order to edit them (rather than just editing on the screen), and they bring people physically into their office to see an interesting web site rather than just sending them the link to the site to view on their own. Or the best example of all, they call others to see if they received their email. These activities contribute to the experience of establishing personal connections. 

The Natives typically do none of those things.  These different accents are significant because they can cause communication difficulties between the natives and the immigrants. When I need something from my kids, I go in the room to ask them (or I yell like a crazy person). When they need something from me I get a text from within the same house. So as technology continues to become more complex, more accessible, and more integrated into our minute by minute way of life, it will be important for Digital Natives to be deliberate about cultivating face-to-face human relationships while the Digital Immigrants will need to be deliberate about just keeping up. 

Melanie Gallo, PhD is a doctor for businesses, providing psychology-based business solutions to individuals and organizations. For more information please visit and text or call today! 

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