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Digital Native or Digital Naïve? Rethinking Digital Literacy


Antonia Pichler

coordinator of psychosocial support services
Jugend am Werk Steiermark GmbH

Anna Lahtinen

vanhempi tutkija, Senior Researcher
Haaga-Helia ammattikorkeakoulu
Haaga-Helia University of Applied Sciences

Published : 12.03.2024

In the digital age, the term “Digital Native”, as defined by the Cambridge Dictionary, suggests an inherent proficiency with digital technologies among those who have grown up surrounded by them. This notion, however, warrants a critical examination. Merely growing up in the digital era does not equate to a comprehensive understanding of digital tools and platforms. This misconception mirrors the flawed assumption that native speakers of a language possess an innate understanding of its grammatical rules without formal education. The reality is far more complex, necessitating a nuanced approach to digital literacy, especially in educational contexts.

This article illuminates insights gained from piloting a digital skills course as part of the Erasmus+ “Digital Job Onboarding” project, uncovering a critical oversight in our assumptions regarding high digital literacy among the youth in the setting of work environment.

The Myth of the Digital Native

The concept of the Digital Native has evolved alongside technological advancements. Initially, it described the Millennial generation, who were the first to grow up with home computers and Internet access. Today, it ostensibly applies to Generation Z and Generation Alpha, perceived as even more tech-savvy due to their upbringing amidst ubiquitous high-end technology. However, this generational familiarity with technology often masks a critical gap in understanding. Young people today may navigate smartphones and social media with ease, yet this surface-level engagement falls short of a deeper comprehension of digital tools and their potential applications.

Our experiences piloting a digital skills course for an Erasmus+ “Digital Job Onboarding” project revealed a significant oversight in our assumptions about digital literacy among the youth. The course, designed for individuals aged 15 to 25, aimed to cover essential topics such as digital tool proficiency, online security, and professional conduct on social media. Contrary to our expectations, the familiarity with daily technology use did not translate into a comprehensive understanding or skill set. This “TV generation thinking error” assumes that exposure equates to expertise – a misconception dating back to the era when televisions entered our living rooms, and children seemed more adept at operating them than adults.

Bridging the Digital Literacy Gap

The analogy of language learning is apt for understanding the challenge at hand. Generation Z, much like A2 level language learners, may know how to “speak” the digital language – using apps, navigating interfaces, and communicating online. However, without a foundational understanding of digital grammar – such as file management, software functionality, and internet safety – they are merely scratching the surface. Our educational efforts must therefore extend beyond mere usage, focusing on the rules and structures that underpin effective and secure digital engagement.

During the digital skills course, a simple task like entering a URL into a browser’s address bar highlighted the discrepancy between perceived and actual digital literacy. Many participants defaulted to using the search bar, revealing a fundamental gap in understanding. This moment underscored the necessity of foundational digital education, teaching not just how to use specific applications, but the underlying principles of digital technology. Basic programs like Microsoft Word and Excel serve as excellent starting points, as they encapsulate concepts applicable across numerous online tools.

The responsibility falls on educators, teachers, and vocational education and training (VET) professionals to bridge this gap. We must recognize the limitations of the Digital Native label and ensure that our teaching strategies address foundational digital skills. This approach is particularly crucial for young people with varying educational backgrounds, including those classified as NEETs (not in education, employment, or training), who may lack access to comprehensive digital literacy education.

As technology continues to evolve, becoming increasingly user-friendly, it is tempting to overlook the importance of basic digital literacy. However, akin to ignoring the grammatical rules of a language, this oversight can lead to a superficial engagement with digital technologies. Educators, policy makers, and technology developers must work together to redefine digital literacy education, ensuring that it encompasses both the practical skills needed for today’s digital tools and the critical thinking necessary to navigate the digital world responsibly and effectively.

In revising our approach to digital literacy, we not only empower the next generation to use technology more effectively but also lay the groundwork for a more inclusive and digitally competent society. The journey from digital naïveté to digital fluency requires a collective commitment to education that values the foundational over the flashy, the substance over the surface.

Jugend am Werk Steiermark GmbH, as a partner from Austria, and Haaga-Helia University of Applied Sciences, as a partner from Finland, collaborate in the Digital Job Onboarding project led by Austria’s FH JOANNEUM to bridge the digital divide for vulnerable young job-seekers, particularly those without academic qualifications.

Recognizing the missed opportunities during the pandemic for such individuals to gain digital skills, the initiative introduces a training program that encompasses both digital and sustainability aspects. The curriculum focuses not just on technical skills but a comprehensive digital transformation, encompassing technology, self-management, legal, ethical, and sustainability factors.

Implementation combines eLearning and blended learning, allowing adaptability to both home and workplace contexts. With partners from various countries, the project aims to involve approximately 300 youths by its conclusion.

Antonia Picher, M.A., is currently serving as the coordinator of psychosocial support services at Jugend am Werk Steiermark GmbH in Graz, following her studies in pedagogy and adult education.

Throughout her academic journey, she engaged in freelance training in adult and youth education, specializing in the safe use of new media and the Internet, and served as a content manager for the Centre of Society, Science, and Communication at the University of Graz. Additionally, she contributed as a freelance magazine editor and held positions as an office manager and counsellor for the Austrian Students’ Union.

Joining Jugend am Werk Steiermark GmbH in 2021 as a social educator for young people and content manager for EU co-funded projects, particularly Erasmus+, Antonia swiftly progressed to overseeing her own project in 2023, where she now serves as the coordinator of psychosocial support services.

Dr. Anna Lahtinen, DBA, serves as a Senior Researcher at Haaga-Helia University of Applied Sciences in Helsinki, Finland. With a specialization in the transformative effects of Artificial Intelligence (AI) on work life, businesses, and careers, Dr. Lahtinen brings over two decades of comprehensive experience spanning industry, entrepreneurship, startups, and academia, both in Finland and internationally. Her work has led several research, development, and innovation projects aimed at implementing AI, supporting over 150 companies and organizations in leveraging AI technologies and developing related skills.

An internationally recognized scholar, Dr. Lahtinen is the recipient of the “Academic Paper Most Relevant to Entrepreneurs Award” from the United States Association for Small Business and Entrepreneurship. Her recent publications include “Guide to Empowering SMEs with AI” and the “AI in Finland” video interview series, where Finnish influencers, industry leaders, and public figures share their experiences with AI.