Digital (Touch) Natives

7 Aug
138 - Who's iPad is it? by Holtsman

138 - Who's iPad is it? by Holtsman

Or, why small children everywhere will soon leave us all in the dust while we’re going “Where’s the mouse?”

iPads are expensive pieces of consumer technology.  In all but a very few circumstances, they’re the ultimate objects of conspicuous consumption.  (“Oh, I saw you admiring my iPad.  Yes, I have an iPad.  You can touch it if you want.”)  So, I’d think that they’d be a kind of adults only tool right now, at least until the price falls.

But, I see little kids playing with them everywhere.  Last week a saw two brothers, ages about two and five, each carrying their own.  They (the iPads, not the kids…English needs more pronouns) were in drop-proof cases each of a different color.  Although they were clearly getting ready for a long car ride, their Mom wasn’t schlepping a big bag of stuff to entertain them, the iPads were it.  (In terms of aching backs, iPads are looking like a pretty good deal.)

iPad 2 by courosa

iPad 2 by courosa

My Aunt teaches kindergarten for children with special needs and has a lot of autistic students.  Last time I saw her, she told me about how they’re hoping to get some iPads for their classroom because the kids take to the technology so well.  She’s of the school of thought that you use what works.  And iPads work for her kids.  Tracing programs help them learn to write their letters.  “Speaking” programs act as a voice for non-verbal students.

Want to see this for yourself?  Go to any Apple store and stand back and watch.  At most electronics stores, the products are for adults to try, not kids.  But it’s different at Apple.  You’ll see little kids engaged with the iPads and their parents standing around looking bored and going, “Okay, Timmy it’s time to go.  We can come play with it again later.”

And all these kids, they “get” the touch interface more than most adults, definitely more than I do.  I get infinitely frustrated by my iPad’s lack of a mouse.  (“Yes, I have an iPad.”  You’re admiring it through the screen, aren’t you?)  But the kids I’m talking about, they’re so young that they don’t know that a mouse is the tool that you’re “supposed” to use to interact with a computer.  (Hell, they probably don’t even know that the iPad is a computer.)

They’re being called “The Touch Generation”, one digital evolutionary step beyond their Digital Native brothers and sisters – I think of them as Digital Tough Natives.

iPad Envy by demandaj

iPad Envy by demandaj

In every aspect of our lives, we’re either immigrants or natives.  We’re natives to the aspects of ourselves and the things that we’ve been doing for so long that we never had to “learn” to be them or do.  They’re engrained in who we are, what we do, and how we approach the world.  We’re immigrants to the things that we had to set out to become, to consciously choose to do or be.

Being immigrant or native goes beyond your citizenship.  I’m native to electricity; my great-great grandparents weren’t.  Some people are native to (what I consider to be) crazy, spicy South East Asian food.  I’m such an immigrant to it that I end up looking flustered and hot every time I eat it.  (Whenever I go to my local Thai restaurant, the waitress looks at me and goes, “Hello.  Zero Spicy.”)

Digital natives are kids that have always known how to use digital technology.  I’m right on the cusp of that generation, but I remember getting our first home computer (with AOL and Microsoft Bob) in fifth grade, the same year my youngest sister was born.  She’s a digital native; I’m not.  She texts faster than I do and always seems to know how to interact with technology, without consciously knowing that she knows about it.  (She’s also very good at finding picture of dogs wearing collars or laying on beds that say “Maggie” on them on the internet at posting them on my Facebook wall, a digital skill that I could do without her having…  Grrr, why is Maggie such a common dog’s name?)

I need to find something on the internet by novemberwolf

I need to find something on the internet by novemberwolf

Digital touch natives will grow up understanding touch technology the way my sister has grown up understanding how to use computers.  (Although hopefully they won’t use it to point out the preponderance of dogs named Maggie.)  Like my sister, digital touch natives won’t even realize that they understand the technology so well; it’s native to them, just part of who they are and what they do.

The world’s going to adjust to them, not to us.  Digital touch technology will become part of more and more devices and aspects of our lives.  It’ll be everywhere and digital touch natives will revel in it.  And they totally won’t know how to respond to all of us who keep making quizzical faces while poking at the screen and muttering, “Where is the mouse?”

Questions of the day: To which technologies are you native?  To which technologies are you an immigrant?  How do you engage with them differently?

MaggieCakes is a blog about social media, marketing, culture, and what’s new on the internet written by me, Maggie O’Toole.  Every day (okay, I try for every day) I comb blogs and news outlets for the news about internet culture and social media to bring them to you (with my commentary, of course) here on MaggieCakes. Find anything interesting in the worlds of culture or social media that you’d like to see a post on? Leave a comment or send me an e-mail at

3 Responses to “Digital (Touch) Natives”

  1. Erin August 7, 2011 at 9:15 am #

    Maggie, this is so true! I only have an iPhone (no I don’t have iPad envy – lol), but my 3 year can use it better than my 38 year old husband! She has her own screen with tons of fun apps and us always asking to use my phone! We’re discussing whether to get an iPad or not and one of the reasons we would is so that Lucy could play with it.

    I don’t know that I’m a computer native or computer immigrant – I learned how to type on a typewriter in highschool, we got our first home computer when I was in 10th grade.

    I think I’ve tried to learn the culture, but I’m not quite at native status

    • Erin August 7, 2011 at 9:16 am #

      Loving autofil – sorry about typos..

  2. carljbspencer August 9, 2011 at 3:00 am #

    Very true! I constantly get fed up of my grandparents telling me about how it was in their day: “We didn’t have washing machines”, “we didn’t have these fancy televisions, DVD players, computers, microwaves…”

    My nan can’t even operate a microwave, let alone a computer. My other nan took classes on the basics of using a computer. I often roll my eyes and laugh at how stupid it is not to be able to operate such simple devices.

    Then, I start thinking about how it’s gonna be when I’m older – how I’ll probably be telling kids or grandkids that you had 2D non-interactive television in my day; wondering how the hell they operate their hovercrafts and mind-control devices. It hasn’t come yet, but I’m really not looking forward to that first time where I think “how the hell do those whippersnappers operate that confounded thingymajig?!”

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