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Are You a Digital Native or a Digital Immigrant?

Brain StimulatedA growing body of research on digital natives is started to emerge. A digital native can be defined as a person who was born after the introduction of digital technology. Digital Natives use online services like Facebook, YouTube, Hulu, and Twitter on various digital technologies, such as smart phones or a tablet device. Digital Natives have blended their online life with their offline life.

Researchers use the term digital immigrant to classify people born before the introduction of digital technology. For Digital Immigrants, the popular technology for them was radio, television, newspapers, books, and magazines. Digital Immigrants are adapting to the digital technology introduced during their life time. Ironically, some Digital Immigrants created the digital technology used by Digital Natives.

Different Types of Digital Immigrants

If you are a Digital Immigrant, it does not mean you are automatically technically inept. You can actually be very technically astute.  Digital Immigrants will have to deal with Digital Natives, as illustrated below by Rupert Murdoch.

My kids are digital natives...they will never know a world without broadband access. -- Rupert Murdoch

As shown above, Murdoch explains that Digital Immigrants must begin to assimilate into the Digital Native culture and their way of thinking. While the sentiment sounds good, it may not be as easy as you might initially think.

Not all Digital Immigrants fit into a single category. Current research classifies Digital Immigrants into three categories:

  1. Avoiders.
    This group does not adapt to new technology quickly, if ever. For example, my father-in-law still gets the newspaper, orders cigars through the mail, and uses the USPS to deliver letters to his friends. He is happy with his life.
  2. Reluctant Adopters.
    This group is aware of new technology and adopts to it at a slow pace. In many respects, I fall into this group. For example, I still have a second generation phone. It took me 10 years to finally get a DVR, even though I knew it would change how I watch television as soon as I saw it. I am happy with my life.
  3. Eager Adopters.
    This group enthusiastically adapts to new technology. They embrace it. For example, Jeremy Johnson, one of the organizers of the Big Design Conference, falls into this group. He seems to be plugged into every device, network, tech trend, and so on. Jeremy personifies an Eager Adopter. Jeremy is happy with his life, too.

Digitial Immigrants can never become Digital Natives because they were not born after the introduction of digital technology.  Eager Adopters, however, are clearly the class Digital Immigrants that can relate more closely to most Digital Natives.

Different Types of Digital Natives, Too

We tend to think all Digital Natives have their brains wired into a series of global social networks, as illustrated below.

Picture of a Brain Plugged Into Social Networks
In the same way that Digital Immigrants can be classified into three distinct groups, some interesting research from Dr. Ofer Zur (a Digital Immigrant) and Azzia Zur (a Digital Native) classifies Digital Natives into three sub-categories:

  1. Avoiders.
    This group consists of people, who are born during the digital age, and do not desire new technology. They are not enamored with Facebook, Twitter, Netflix, or Hulu. For example, I know a 14-year old, who prefers to paint portraits. She owns an iPad, only because her school books are on it. She only watches public television.  She sings in the church choir.  She is very happy.
  2. Minimalists.
    This group is aware that digital technology is a part of their daily life. They choose to interact with only the most interesting things to them personally. For example, I know a young person who does not have a Twitter account and avoids Facebook. She is not a gamer.  She sends emails and downloads books to her Kindle.
  3. Enthusiastic Participants.
    This group is the largest group of Digital Natives. Like their Digital Immigrant cousins the Eager Adopters, Enthusiastic Participants embrace and use all forms of digital technology. This group prefers texting and tweeting over sending out email blasts. They are aware of the latest technology, trends, and tools. Their online and offline lives are blending together.

You need to understand the differences in Digital Immigrants and Digital Natives because of how these two groups interact.  Digital Immigrants are the parents, teachers, and managers of Digital Natives.

Getting the Most from Digital Immigrants and Digital Natives

To effectively interact in some situations, you need to know if someone is a Digital Immigrant or Digital Native. In some cases, you can simply look at a person, see their age, and know. In other cases, you need to ask a few questions. How old are you? When did you get your first computer? Are you a student? You can always explain about the difference between a Digital Native and Digital Immigrants, too. Ask someone which group they think they belong in.

When Similarity is Important

You probably noticed that some Digital Immigrants and Digital Natives classifications are almost identical. A Digital Immigrant, who is an Eager Adopter, will naturally work well with a Digital Native, who is an Enthusiastic Participant. They will probably text each other, follow each other on Facebook, share online stories about similar interests, and talk about the latest gadgets and technology.

I Facebooked Your Mom

When you need to get like-minded people together on a project look for the complementary styles Digital Immigrants and Digital Natives. For example, you need to focus on some kind innovation. Eager Participants and Early Adopters can envision the future. When you want to determine if your innovative ideas can be implemented into the market, you might want to have Reluctant Adopters and Minimalists review it for additional insights.

When Diversity is Important

In some cases, you want diversity more than similarity. You need a fresh perspective, coaching, and so on. Assume you are a C-level executive that understands your business. You have been steadily moving up at your company. You understand the business forces affecting your company, their customers, and your products. You are a Digital Immigrant, who is a Reluctant Adopter. You need a Digital Native, who is an Eager Participant, because you want to target touch devices, social networks, and mobile platforms.  In this situation, the Digital Immigrant needs coaching from a Digital Native.

Digital Native Coaches a Digital Immigrant

For designers, you want a diversity of viewpoints when you build your products. Consider recruiting Eager Adopters, Reluctant Adopters, Minimalists, and Avoiders for market research and usability testing purposes. The different viewpoints give you insights into what motivates these groups. The “tipping point” for any product occurs when Reluctant Adopters and Minimalists want your product. Their diverse insight is crucial to your design research and product success.

Final Questions

Where do you see your “self”?

Are you a Digital Immigrant or Digital Native?

How do you see your family and friends?

Let us know.  Add some comments below.


36 Responses

  1. Nicki

    It’s an interesting article. I appreciate the way you’ve laid out the terms and their definitions. However, it feels much more important to consider people based on their attitude to technology than the year they were born, as you discussed when matching people up on work teams. It would make more sense for the primary label to be about enthusiasm (ex: digital enthusiast vs. digital avoider) and have sub categories in those for people who were born before or after the digital revolution. But, I understand that “digital native” and “digital immigrant” are the terms the media has locked on to.

    Do you have any statistics about how many digital natives are enthusiastic participants?

    In this sentence, should the first “Digital Natives” actually be “Digital Immigrants”? “As shown above, Murdoch explains that Digital Natives must begin to assimilate into the Digital Native culture and their way of thinking.”

    Thanks for this thoughtful material on understanding the digital experience!

    1. I agree with you. I do think we should consider their general attitude towards technology. I also think we do need to look at their age. You cannot undo when you were born and the technology that gets introduced. I think age is a secondary factor, though. the primary factor is going to be a person’s general attitude towards technology and how immersed they are in the technology.

      Plus, I think Malcolm Gladwell’s book called “Outliers” has an interesting chapter about the year that certain CEOs were born. Cisco, Microsoft, Apple, and other large companies get compared. These CEO had a level access to specific technology during their formative years.

      The terms digital media and digital immigrants are starting to be used by certain researchers, if you follow the link in the article you can read up on it. You can also find this term in a great little book called “iBrain” which I recommend reading.

  2. Cason Swindle

    Nicki, you bring up an excellent point about which label is more important, immigrant status or digital enthusiasm.

    I reviewed some of the research. A recent study comparing University of Toronto faculty to students “concludes that the digital native-digital immigrant duality is a complex phenomenon which cannot always be described in these extreme terms.”

    It seems that overall this is most useful as a model to understand and explain generational differences rather than predict them. The term “digital immigrant” was coined by educational entrepreneur Marc Prensky in 2001 to explain the differences he saw in how the younger generation learns.,%20Digital%20Immigrants%20-%20Part1.pdf

  3. i’ve met 20 year olds who are digitally illiterate and 40 year olds who were there in the first tech boom in the ’90s and have led successive waves of change every six months since then

    attitude is what counts, and intelligence and enthusiasm and wanting to keep knowing what’s next

    1. I might know those same people. i am surprised how Digital Natives do learn. Their brain is just wired differently because of the environment they live in. We have a new cognitive bias called the Google effect, which is where we forget information because we know that we can Google it. Yes, attitude is important, enthusiasm, and the desire to know what is next is important for some people. Apathy does affect it, too.

      My father-in-law is 94 years old. He does not care about digital media (other than his cable TV). He writes letters, makes phone calls, and lives a very happy life of a digital immigrant. Thanks for writing.

  4. There is one subclass of digital natives that I think need to be included and that is the group who simply do not know that these digital tools even exist. They use these tools without any reflection as to their “digitalness”. Our grand children see no distinction between a digital and an analogue device. Train engineers drive trains so that is a job opportunity. Software engineers? No clue. Computers have taken the place of cog wheels and pistons and disappear from our view.

  5. Adrian Howard

    I am definitely a digital immigrant. I think that I would fit into a reluctant adopter. I love technology but don’t necessarily jumped to get everything. I can use the basics but don’t move on from there. My mother attempts to be a eager adapter by having all the gadgets, but I think she still is not fluid. My husband is definitely an eager adapter. He seems to understand how everything works. He loves gadgets and wants them all. Obviously my children are digital natives. I am amazed by how comfortable they are with clicking in and out of pages or apps. They play games with ease.

  6. Najuminisa

    Good day
    Please advise if “Are you a Digital Native or a Digital Immigrant” comes in book format also what the barcode and publisher are

    Waiting your urgent reply


  7. Temesgen

    I am not quite sure if I am Digital Immigrant or Digital Native, but i will say I am digital Native right to the points I am in technology. What I mean is that I used to be all new to all technologies; not anymore tho. When i was back home in Ethiopia When digital stuff comes to work on some Live church concerts, I used to say “wow this is cool”, I mean i still say that, but it has much difference than before. After i came to USA I developed to the Digital World, so i would say I Digital Native.

  8. I consider myself a Digital Native. I was born in 1974, and began my fascination with digital technology at an early age. My farther was a TV Repair Man (does anyone remember them?), and as a child some of my first toys were “picture tubes” and wires.

    As I got older, I started asking for toys like “Merlin”, Atari, and Mattel Electronic Football. It didn’t take me long to start tearing apart the games, and wiring them together to “see what happens”. I got some cool beeps and lights, but eventually ended up “letting the factory smoke out”. Which we all know makes the games no longer work 😉

    Around 1984 I was introduced to my first Tandy 1000 computer, and spent to next couple years typing out 100s of lines of code just to see the little stick figure walk across the screen, and loved every minute of it. As I look back, I wish I had continued learning about DOS and it’s processes, but I eventually ended up appreciating the more user friendly platforms like the ones used in my 386 SX computer around 1989.

    Today, I use a lot of social networks, web design CMS software, graphic design programs, and more both for my professional life as well as my personal projects. All in all, I think my life’s experiences make me an “Enthusiastic Participant” Digital Native. I love using the latest digital technology, and truly enjoy teaching myself things like web design, graphic design, audio recording, and my latest endeavor attending Full Sail University in pursuit of a Music Business Degree online. I haven’t attended school since 1992, so I was apprehensive about my skill level to use a computer as a leaning tool, but as I am a Digital Native I understand the methodology, technonogy, and truly enjoy being an independent learner.

    1. I think that digital age for my grandmother as immigrant she had no knowledge of cell phones how they works and all.But as for me i was very in touch with digital knowledge of I Pads and cell phones and also computer makes the world and it’s technology at it’s best.

  9. Tyron

    Hi Tyron I’m 23 years old. I was born into the Digital world and I see myself in between Enthusiastic Participant, and Minimalists. I use technology off and on when its good for me our when I have to with the way things are going in today’s time pretty soon no one will have a choice anymore. I do have a smart phone but its a old one I still have the second generation I phone not saying I don’t no how to work the others I just can’t afford it. But I believe must def I am a digital native after seeing this

  10. Cora "LaCora" Griffin

    I feel as though I am both, what ever the learning style is whether it be Digital immigrant to Digital Natives I learn to adjust to what ever is need to complete the assignment, with few problem, to come in in realization of the problem they must go hand in hand for the next generation to be effective. Because with out the thinking process, writing or the ability to adjust is what will determine which learning skill is more productive and how to implement it.

  11. Nico Garcia

    I certainly see myself as a Digital Native. Growing up in age where technology makes it easier to connect and communicate with others around the world. I consider myself an eager person when it comes to the latest developments in technology. Although I would have to say I consider myself a minimalist just because I’m not always using the latest technology the same day it comes out. It takes me a short amount of time to adjust to the new technology. Once you get the hang of it then it just becomes part of your daily routine.
    As for my parents I consider them Digital Immigrants. It takes them a longer period of time for them to adjust to the latest technology. I agree they do have tendencies to use traditional methods to communicate with others. All if not most of my friends are Digital Natives. Eager about the latest technology in the market and at the drop of a hat pick up on the latest use of the technology

  12. Adair

    I’m 22 and I consider myself a digital immigrant. I grew up on analog technology and wasn’t introduced to digital technology until I was 14 then I saw more cell phones more people were getting high speed internet and ipods were getting popular. I would say that digital natives would be people under 19 and digital immigrants are people older than 19.

  13. Laura Sumner

    I don’t want to say which one I am, fearing it may tell my age. I guess that comment in itself tells on me. LOL! Any way I am an immigrant, who falls between reluctant and eager adopter. I am eager to learn, but because of my lack of knowledge I am slow to learn.I am not up on the upcoming new devices, but I do go on Facebook, p interest and explore the internet.

  14. I want to say, the digital world is really moving forward. I believe I have a lack of knowledge in technology in order in keep up.So I would consider my self a digital Immigrant. I group up without digital information. I am looking forward to learning more in the near future.

  15. Hello everyone. I am Tasha, a student at Full Sail University. I am majoring in Music Production.
    I believe everyone made valid points. I consider myself to be a digital native. I was born in the 80’s when technology was on the rise. I was able to see the ending stages of analog life and the beginning of new technology. Even though in this article the native term stands for people who were born after the introduction of technology, I believe that you cannot classify ones category they should fit into based on time they were born. I believe that other things should be taken in to consideration as well. Where they were born, how they grew up, and their culture. I believe everyone’s experience is different due to the fact that everyone is different, think differently, and grew up being introduced to different things. I believe that the learning style is based o the learner and how much he/she wants to intake.

  16. Raheem Steward

    I enjoyed reading this article, it was great how it underlined the different categories associated with each term. I would have to say I’m definitely a Reluctant Digital Immigrant. However I’m looking to change that. From some of the comments I’ve read it’s important for an individual to stay up to date with the latest in technological trends considering how rapidly it changes. Like many people commented attitude is everything.

  17. Robert

    I also enjoyed this article, I thought I might be a digital immigrant, but based off the three different types, I seem to fit in with the minimalist and enthusiast. A sort of digital chameleon I suppose?

  18. Adam

    I enjoyed this article–definitely learned i would be a Minimalist. Kinda shocked because I definitely saw myself differently. This was definitely a eye opener.

  19. Brandonn A Johnson

    I myself am a “digital native” in my eyes. Even in my middle school years, we were taught the basic skills of using computers such as proper finger placement when typing. I can just imagine the life of a “digital immigrant” and all the struggles they face everyday. I remember when my grandfather got his first laptop and all the questions he would ask me in reference to his new piece of technology and how to use it. I would always be the only one with an answer because I was the only one who was young enough to associate myself with a computer everyday. Its always a sight to see a long line at a store being held up by a person writing a check at the grocery store. We in todays “digital world” have moved on to more basic and quicker payment methods. For most people in my generation, if they leave their cell phone home by accident, we feel a part of us is missing. “Digital immigrants” have struggled to become a part of the new world but its hard to adapt when you have lived your life one way the entire time.

  20. Javares Clayton

    I’m a digital immigrant to the fullest, I love this new technology but I’m still having a hard time getting used to it, not so much as getting use to it, but learning how to use on the regular but it’s so cool, Everytime I saw Steve Jobs get on that stage and present a new gadget, I said DAMN I got to get one of those, why didn’t I think of that. Because as soon as it circulates into our everyday lives it becomes a part of it.But it makes me think about some of great minds from ages ago what if Nicoli Tesla and Thomas Edison been living in todays world, what would technology be like then, what would they come up with and create.

  21. Michelle Tieman

    Interesting article. I am a digital immigrant, I was in my 30’s when I started to incorporate computers and cell phones into my life. Always thought I could live without but now don’t know what I would do without them. My children are digital natives and very well adapted to this world but it saddens me that the basic art of reading and writing on paper is going by the wayside. I hear that schools aren’t even teaching cursive anymore. I believe there still needs to be a staple as to how I learned while growing up implemented in today’s children so they actually need to think for themselves every now and then instead of depending on a digital device to function in life.

  22. Laura Sumner

    I am a digital immigrant with a minimalist mentality. I do interact with things that interest me and I do have a Facebook account. I don’t post much on social medias, I mainly search the websites. Some of my family members are digital dinosaurs, and some are digital generation. My parents do not join any social media, but they do all their financing online. On the other hand my neices and nephews know a lot when it comes to technology.

  23. Walter Cencere Lattimore

    I am a Digital Native and to be more specific I’m a enthusiastic participant. My family, I would say, are split between Digital Immigrant and Digital Native. I use sites like Twitter, Facebook and Sound Cloud all the time but my family, some can send emails and use Facebook but some have no idea of what they are.

  24. Douglas Farnum

    First off I would like to say awesome job on this article. You do a great job of describing people’s relationship with technology. I am definitely a Digital Immigrant. I was born in 1972 and remember having access to the Commodore 64 when they first came out. I would also classify myself as an Eager Adopter, as I am in love with technology and all it has to offer. My girlfriend and her mother are what I would refer to as “Enthusiastic Anti-Technology”, they both enjoy playing games on computers, tablets and smart phones but are unable to “make them work” without some help, and get easily frustrated. I look forward with open arms to the future and what technological toys it will bring.

  25. Markeisha Lee

    Where do you see your “self”? I see my self as and eager adopter.

    Are you a Digital Immigrant or Digital Native? I was born a Digital Immigrant.

    How do you see your family and friends? I see my family and friends mostly being eager adopter and born digital natives.

    Great article

  26. Shamik

    This was an amazing article! im studying this topic in my class and it gave me a new meaning and understanding to defining who i am. I am As one of my classmates once said “Digital Nerd (Native)”, because i actually use all of the social media sites to promote my digital identity.

  27. This was a very enlightening article! After taking in the information mentioned in it, I’ve deduced that I’m indeed a digital immigrant. It’s amazing that immediately after reading it I felt like I was instantly “too old to function in today’s society” but after learning about the different types of digital immigrants there are, I am relieved and proud to announce that I’m also an eager adopter!

    A lot of friends (Actually, I think all my friends) I have are also digital immigrants. We often come together and speak of old times when we’d watch shows on old, basic public channels. Imagine that, old timers like us! However, a lot of people in my family (Vast majority, since many of them were born in Nigeria) are reluctant to add technology to their lives. Some are fully avoidant, even.

  28. Krista

    I consider myself to be a digital immigrant in the “reluctant adopter” category. It’s not because I don’t see the value in technology. I guess I am more scared of the unknown. I did not grow up with parents who always had the latest tech. gadget, so I was just not around it a lot. I am sometimes afraid to use new tools in my classroom for fear that I might mess something up.

  29. Sam Rosado

    I can definitely relate to this article in so many different ways. I see myself as a Digital Native. I was born at the beginning of the Digital Explosion. I’ve adapted and evolved as time has passed. I have enjoyed watching the changes understanding the advancements and growing side by side with the change.

    My introduction and understanding what a digital native is happened in 1977 when I got my first video game system. My Atari 2600 amazed me then. My PS4 astonishes me now.

    My friends are definitely Natives as they grew up in the same era that I did. We are communicate in different ways such as social media, texting, video streaming etc… My family has evolved around the digital world and are strongly considered immigrants. My parents are immigrants with the old world mentality. They are and were avoiders and minimalists in every sense of the definition.

    I enjoyed reading this and understanding who I am.

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