The myth of ‘digital natives’

It’s assumed young people have a natural affinity to tech – but many are digitally naive and far more vulnerable than we think

The ease at which today’s tech-savvy students swipe their way through digital devices and social media apps might lead you to believe they know where they are going. But you’d be wrong. When it comes to finding their way safely through the technological maze, many are just as lost as their parents.

Dr Fiona Chambers, acting head of education at UCC who has studied young people's experiences online, says today's digital natives can use the technology, but have "no critical engagement at all". This, she says, leaves students more vulnerable to the influence of fake news and other online risks.

She was part of a research team which recently examined the experiences of more than 600 students online in a mixed, rural secondary school in Ireland. It was one of the first projects of its kind to measure the impact of digital literacy programmes.

It found that more than two-thirds of students knew of someone who had been harmed because of the misuse of technology. Bullying, self-harm and blackmail were just some of the dangers reported.


The same study found that pupils still widely share online even though 68 per cent cent don’t always trust who they are communicating with. The remainder “always trust” who they speak to online, demonstrating a frightening level of naivety. There was also uncertainty around how long chat messages or images are stored online.

When students were asked to name the best things about technology, porn and anonymity were amng the most popular responses. Students also said that someone who is good at technology is someone who can hack. Only one student recognised technology’s positive societal impact.

These risks, say experts, shouldn’t be used to steer students away from interacting on digital platforms. The challenge, they says, is how to live intelligently with it.

This is where the education challenge comes in: how can we create a society with digitally empowered citizens who are aware of technology's uses, such that they can decide when they use it and for what purpose. Revelations of data-mining involving Cambridge Analytica and Facebook have only heightened the urgency of tackling this. For many, the penny is only dropping on just how little control we have over our personal information and who accesses it once we upload it.

Digital literacy is now available as a short course on the Junior Cycle in seconday schools. Most schools, however, are addressing the topic under the umbrella of the new "wellbeing" curriculum.

One school that has decided to offer the course is Cork Educate Together Secondary School. "It was developed in response to what we thought would give our students the best overall learning experience," says Dawn O' Sullivan, the school's digital literacy teacher.

“We also worked closely with some of the parents, who work in Computer Science, to get their input and that was extremely helpful”.

The course covers a multitude of topics, from managing themselves online, file sharing, using code to create pieces of art, to analysing fake news.

Ms O’Sullivan believes schools have an important role to play in improving digital literacy.

“Students might be surrounded by technology but they still need guidance and direction to be able to really utilise technology.”

Ms O’Sullivan has noticed the positive impact the course has had on her students. “I have seen students developing a more resilient approach and a growth mindset.”

Needless to say, parents are floundering as well: many are unaware of what their children are encountering online.

A report published by Mimi Tatlow Golden, Who's Feeding the Kids Online?, revealed that parents were unaware of how their children were being targeted.

Only one in four parents were aware that their children were exposed to advertising when they were using social media platforms.

“We assume the adults have the skills but we don’t, nobody ever taught us either,” says Dr Aileen McGloin of Safefood Ireland.

The definition of what it means to be digitally literate is expanding beyond the creation of digital information to include the understanding of this information.

According to research by Miller and Bartlett it combines "classic skills necessary for any critical engagement with information with specific knowledge bases about how the internet works" and an understanding that the internet "can inadvertently deceive or be deliberately used to deceive". In short, it's about understanding "how" it works, along with how to use it.

Dr Orla Murphy, lecturer in digital humanities in UCC, believes these skills are far too important to be left to chance.

“Fake news will come and go but it is the latent algorithms that we need to educate people about and schools are best place for this transformational learning to happen,” she says.

While schools are well-placed to address the issue of digital literacy and media fluency, it is important to remember that issues such as digital consent, latent algorithms and fake news are something schools require updating on too.

Dr Chambers says she integrates this critical engagement into her teacher training course. Her students are required to not only research and present educational content and lessons using digital mediums, but they must also critically assess its source.

“It must be squeaky clean,” says Chambers. She is also adamant that there are times when technology is not the best tool and understanding when not to use it is a skill too.

The dangers that exist online may be daunting, but most experts believe banning access to technology is not an option.

Digital literacy, they say, will be essential for anyone to flourish inthis new world order. The key, they say, is not to pull the plug on technology but to look beyond the screen and tackle what lies beneath.

Six tips to be become more digitally literate:

Webwise, an Irish internet safety organisation, provides information for teachers, parents and students. Its tips for students on how to conduct research online for school assignments include:

1. Don't believe everything you read: You must examine every aspect of a site to see if the information is credible, authoritative, objective, accurate and up-to- date. Always verify information using several sources.

2. Who created the website? Use the "about Us" page to determine what the site is really about. If the site doesn't list the name of the publisher and its management team then leave and visit another

3. Don't rely on search engines: The internet is not always the best place to start; databases may help you find credible information you need quicker.

4. Think before you search: Brainstorm some key search terms before you start and always keep track of sources you review.

5. Use multiple search engines: If students are using search engines it is recommended that they use more than one and preferably use Google Scholar over Google.

6. Dig deep: Students are encouraged to not to stop at the first page of search results as academics may not optimise their content.