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Youth and Technology Digital Debates

Historically, there are two major debates related to youth and technology.

  1. First is the access of technology such as to computers and mobile phones.  This is referred in the literature as the digital divide.
  2. Second, as students are growing up in a digital environment, many sources refer to them as digital natives.

This post will offer a brief background of each ‘debate’ including both sides of the argument.  As you read, reflect how you see these debates fitting into your experience and perspective.  Are we divided by technology access with the haves and have-nots?  Are we forever different from youth because they grew up with technology?
The Digital Divide
The concern of a digital divide is a warranted discussion in college student use and impact of all forms of technology.  This happens when individuals do not have equal access to technology and thus cannot participate in digital conversations (Ahn, 2011).  This would mean a student without these tools (computer, phone, internet connection) would miss out on the benefits or potential pitfalls of social media communication tools.  However, studies on high school students show otherwise.
Using the Pew Internet & American Life project (PIAL) of 700 teens and their parents, Ahn (2011) looked at the subset of questions that inquired about teens use of social media.  What was discovered was that students in high school access the Internet both at school and home, in addition to mobile phones.  Further, those without computers or Internet access at home were finding other ways to get online.

 “Surprisingly, teens that report having primary access in other locations (perhaps friends’ homes or their mobile phones) were 128% more likely to be social network site users” (p. 158).

This could be due to the fact they were away from parents and adult supervision.  This confirms what Johnson’s (2012) study showed that students are already coming to college with a vase amount of experience and knowledge about technology.  From the PIAL project it was reported that 95% of teens in the U.S. utilize the Internet at least occasionally (Pew Internet & American Life Project, 2013).
Looking at college students, nearly all (89%) own a laptop computer or a smart phone (76%) (Dahlstrom, Walker, & Dziuban, 2013).  However, the digital divide must still be kept in perspective when developing, implementing and researching technology communication tools for students at all levels in the educational system.
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Digital Natives
Presnkey (2001) declared that those born after 1980 are called Digital Natives because they have lived a life immersed in digital living and as a result “they learn different from previous generations of people” (p. 9).  This includes how they process information.
Presnky has received many challengers to this concept, as all should not be lumped into one category.  However, Bennet, Marton & Keven (2008) found no claims in the Digital Natives argument, with no empirical or theoretical basis.  Each user has different experiences overtime and how that has or has not shaped their technology skills.
Even if ‘digital natives’ are different than prior generations, I believe what Davis (2013) stated that “they still require supportive, face-to-face relationships in order to thrive” (p. 2289).
Digital access, skill development, and actual usage brings to the surface the need to teach students digital literacies.  Brandtzaeg (2012) showed over half of student users lurking or sporadically logging on without posting which:

Indicates passive consumption and quite low-interest or low-skilled use of SNSs for the majority of the SNS user population.  They may reflect a new kind of digital divide, where a large part of the population is not suited to adopt, utilize, and reap reward of the new networked societies” (p. 485).

Two authors echoed this statement, as one needs access to technology to learn it (Salmon, 2000), as well as having intention and competency with tools to benefit from social media (Hughes 2009).  These studies have discussed the digital divide in access, skill and development.
There is still a need to dig deeper into technology competencies to study behavior acted out online through social media.  Previously I have written about this (here), highlighting research that include these digital literacy competencies in order to develop digital student leaders.
What are other digital debates you are facing working with teens and young adults?  Please keep the conversation going in the comments below!
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For all content cited on this post, explore {here} for all references I have used on my blog.

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About Josie

I’m Dr. Josie Ahlquist—a digital engagement and leadership consultant, researcher, educator, and author. I’m passionate about helping people and organizations find purposeful ways to connect, engage, and tell their unique story. I provide consulting, executive coaching, and training for campuses, companies, and organizations that want to learn how to humanize technology tools and build effective and authentic online communities.

My blog and podcast have been recognized by EdTech Magazine, Inside Higher Ed and the Chronicle of Higher Education. My book, Digital Leadership in Higher Education, was published in 2020 and was listed as a #1 new release for college and university student life. I have been growing my consultancy since 2013 and am based in Los Angeles. When I’m not helping clients lead online, you might find me training for a triathlon, spoiling my nieces and nephews, or exploring with my husband and our rescue dogs in our new RV called Lady Hawk.

I’d love to connect! Find me on Twitter, Instagram, LinkedIn, and Facebook.

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Rebekah Tilley is the assistant vice president of communication and marketing for the University of Iowa Center for Advancement (UICA). In that role she supports fundraising and alumni engagement efforts for the university, including its CASE Gold winning Iowa Magazine, and serves UICA in a variety of strategic communication efforts.

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