Digital ‘natives’ 16 years on

Do you consider yourself a digital ‘native’? This term has become widespread over the last decade or so to describe someone, usually a young person, who has grown up with technology. It’s been influential in government and advertising (see, for example – sorry FT paywall Young ‘digital natives’ naive about internet advertising). The flip side of this is the so-called digital ‘immigrant’. Crudely, this someone who learns to live with technology but never quite loses their previous identity. These terms were coined by Marc Prensky in 2001, and, since then have become notorious.

See this TED talk by Sree Sreenivasn comparing the concept of digital ‘immigrants’ with being an actual ‘real-world’ immigrant.

However, his ideas have been widely criticised (see Bennett, et al., 2008 and Margaryan and Littlejohn, 2008). As a theory it puts people into rigid boxes. Surely people are more complex than this, they can and do learn new skills. But there’s now some who argue for an evolution of the natives idea.

‘Residents’ see the Web as a place, a ‘cyberspace’…  from openDemocracy Flickr used under CC non-commercial

David White and Alison Le Cornu (2011, also see a summary by White) instead say that we should think of digital ‘residents’ and ‘visitors’. These are defined by their motivations, not by arbitrary groups. For a ‘resident’, the Web is very much ‘cyberspace’. It’s a place they can go to and meet their friends, do some work or relax. This is in contrast to the ‘visitor’. They see the Web as merely a new technological tool. Sure, they might research a holiday or do some online banking on it but they don’t inhabit it. This means they are more likely to be concerned about privacy and security online and don’t seek to maintain their presence once they’ve logged off.

… whereas ‘visitors’ see the Web as a ‘tool’ from WikiMedia used under CC ShareAlike
‘Residents’, on the other hand, actively ensure that their online personas persist even when they’re not there.

You might ask, doesn’t this idea still feel like putting people in boxes? You’re still either a ‘resident’ or a ‘visitor’. But White and Le Cornu show that their ideas are more nuanced. Firstly, they say that people aren’t simply one category the whole time. For instance, in their social life, they might be considered a ‘resident’ updating and maintaining social media profiles. However, at work, they use the Web merely as a tool to make them more efficient. For someone who is self-employed, this could be the other way around. It is also not just dependent on age, consider online spaces such as Mumsnet. ‘Visitors’ may also be more technically competent than ‘residents’. As such this captures more of how people actually use technology in their complex lives.

The scale from ‘visitor’ to ‘resident’ from White and Cornu 2011


Bennett et al., 2008 “The ‘digital natives’ debate: a critical review of the Evidence”

Margaryan and Littlejohn, 2008 “Are digital natives a myth or reality?: Students’ use of technologies for learning”

Prensky, 2001 “Digital Natives, Digital Immigrants” 

White and Cornu, 2011 “Visitors and Residents: A new typology for online engagement” 


2 thoughts on “Digital ‘natives’ 16 years on

  1. Hi Mark,

    I really like the arguments you have put forward in your blog, Although you have explained how age is not the sole factor in determining whether a user in more of a resident or a visitor do you think it is still significant that a younger audience will more likely be a resident than a visitor?

    For instance Mumsnet has around 2.25 million viewers every month ( source: and is designed as a forum for discussions for a particular audience. However Reddit has around 150 million monthly views (source: and yet the vast majority are still users aged between 18 and 29 ( In fact there are more 18 to 29 years old which use reddit than all of the other age demographics combined. Do we see a similar pattern amongst other socioeconomic factors such as class, sex, gender, race and ethnicity?

    Liked by 1 person

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