Digital natives: what has really changed?

In the last few years, you may have heard people talking about the so-called digital natives referring to younger generations and worrying about their very short attention span. What does this label mean and why are these people different from their fathers?
In this article we will try to define this new category and analyze possible solutions to cope with their new ways of thinking.


According to a widespread definition, digital natives are individuals born after the mass adoption of digital technology. It is not strictly related to a particular generation: it refers to those who have grown up using computers, Internet and mobile devices, getting familiar with technology from a very young age.

On the contrary, individuals who were exposed to these technologies at greater age are commonly called “digital immigrants”, since they grew up in a non-tech world and learned to use digital tools only after they had spread.



Apart from being more accustomed to technology, it is believed that digital natives think differently and thus need to be taught using different strategies.

In particular, a very interesting study in this sense was carried out by Microsoft Canada in 2013: its aim was to assess customers’ attention capacities, with a specific focus on the attention span.

The attention span is the amount of concentrated time someone can spend on a task without becoming distracted, which is crucial for the achievement of every kind of goals.

The results of this study were quite impressive, since they showed how the average human attention span had fallen from 12 seconds in 2000 to 8 seconds in 2015, compared to the 9 seconds attention span of goldfishes.

Even though it was proven that the data displayed on the Report weren’t actually based on findings from Microsoft’s own research, but they were sourced by some reports from a company called Statistics Brain, the research came into the limelight and got everyone wondering whether humans were regressing to be less focused than a fish.



What was really worthy of consideration in the research, though, were the findings about how people’s attention is evolving in the new digital world.

It looks like “tech adoption and social media usage are training consumers to become better at processing and encoding information through short bursts of high attention”. This applies both to digital natives and immigrants, who are now able to process data more intensively and more efficiently and to focus on more than one thing at once. On the other side, the use of technology affected the ability to remain focused for extended periods of time, mostly in case of very repetitive and boring tasks.

All things considered, our attention is neither better nor worse than in the past: it simply works differently, getting unfocused much more easily and quickly and thus needing different stimuli to get at its best.



But why we get so bored so fast? It seems to be all driven by dopamine, the chemical released every time we do something rewarding and that makes us feel good. Being used to Internet, social networks and instant messaging, we got accustomed to constantly get instant gratification when we find something interesting, spiking dopamine in our brain.

This is why, when we perceive what we are reading or watching as dull or pointless, our attention span tends to be dramatically reduced: we simply don’t get our dopamine hit by non-engaging or non-interesting contents, feeling the opposite of satisfied and happy.



How can we overcome this undeniable change? As they say, if you can’t beat them, join them. If people, both digital natives and immigrants, are so used to being involved in interactive activities and receiving instant gratification, that’s exactly what they should get while learning something: we cannot expect to use old methods to engage students who have a new way of thinking. Therefore, training needs to be tailored to meet these new behaviors, “borrowing” structures and features from those digital tools we all use in our everyday life.

What does it mean in practice? Find out in the next article!


Technopedia, Definition – What does Digital Native mean? 
Microsoft Canada, Microsoft Attention Spans Research Report


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