How to define a digital generation


In order to critique the hypothesis by Gardner and Davis that today’s youth can be characterised as “The App Generation”, two key concepts need to be explored.  These concepts are the definition of a generation and the effect of media and technologies on societies.

How do we define a generation?

Gardner and Davis examine a number of the different definitions of a generation. They look at the biological generation, defined by child birth; the calendric generation, defined by decades; the political, cultural or social generation defined by ‘big events’; and the technological generation, marked by newly emerging technologies.  They believe that  “in evoking the epithet the App Generation, [they] seek to go beyond the technology, and beyond the media of communication, into the psychology of the users.  … [and] aim to capture the cognitive, social, emotional, and even ethical dimensions of what it is like to be a young person today. (2013, p. 54)

A number of other writers have also labelled generations according to technological changes.  A very prominent example of this is Marc Prensky who said that “today’s students think and process information fundamentally differently from their predecessors” and as such could be called a generation of “digital natives” (2001).  This view is supported by John Palfrey and Urs Gasser in their book titled Born Digital where they claim that the digital generation can be distinguished because they study, work, write and interact with each other in very different ways to previous generations (2008, p. 2).  When making such statement about generations, Gardner and Davis warn,  “almost any generalizations about youth are likely to invite – and deserve – modifications as well as counter examples” (2013, p. 48).  In her article titled The digital melting pot:  Bridging the digital native-immigrant divide, Sharon Stoerger, wary of such generalisations, says that “what is often overlooked is the simplicity of these labels and their inability to address the complexity of the students who enter the physical and the digital classroom” (2009).

How have media and technologies affected the behaviours and consciousness of people throughout history?

“As [Marshall] McLuhan saw it, each medium …. alters the relation of the individual to the surrounding world” (Gardner and Davis, 2013, p. 22).

New technologies and media have significantly affected societies throughout history.  The invention of writing brought about fundamental change in human thought and expression, opening the way for developments in law, literature, science and philosophy.  The invention of the printing press was another technology that changed the world through its contribution to weakening religious authoritarianism and laying the groundwork for mass communication and education.

The digital technologies of the twentieth century have similarly been attributed with affecting significant global change. These include the mass media of the newspaper and publishing empires, radio and television networks and movie studios that influenced political and social thinking on a scale and speed previously unimagined.  The era of mass media was followed by the Digital Age of powerful personal computers, cable television and 24 hour news coverage, mobile phones and the World Wide Web.  This first wave of digital media was quickly followed by a second wave that heralded the introduction and widespread use of social media, hand-held devices and Web 2.0 & 3.0.  This new era changed the participation of the population from being consumers of content-delivery systems to participants and creators in a highly dynamic media environment.

Gardner and Davis examine such contributions of media and technology to behaviours and consciousness throughout history and believe that in contrast to other definitions, a generation can be thought of “in terms of the dominant media and the habits of mind, behavior, presentation of self, and relation to others that they foster – as well as those that they minimise or even expunge”. (2013, p. 53)



Gardner, H., & Davis, K. (2013). The app generation: How today’s youth navigate identity, intimacy, and imagination in a digital world. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Palfrey, J. G., & Gasser, U. (2008). Born digital: Understanding the first generation of digital natives. New York: Basic Books.

Prensky, M. (2001). Digital Natives, Digital Immigrants Part 1. On the Horizon, 9(5), 1-6. doi: 10.1108/10748120110424816

Stoerger, S. (2009, July 6). The digital melting pot: Bridging the digital native-immigrant divide | Stoerger | First Monday. First Monday. Retrieved April 10, 2014, from

Two Generations. [Photography]. Retrieved from Encyclopædia Britannica ImageQuest.




1 Comment on How to define a digital generation

  1. jerry.leeson
    April 29, 2014 at 12:23 pm (6 years ago)

    Hi. I found this post (and your other posts) to be really interesting. The one thing that I would like to comment on is the notion of digital natives – it’s a term that has long bothered me. I remember quit vividly taking part in a forum where Prensky talked about this and a couple of us went out for dinner to a nearby pub afterwards. While we were there a group of ‘senior citizens’ came in, sat down at the table next to us and commenced to text their friends, telling them where they were and engaged with technology in a very similar manner to the tables of ‘digital natives’ next to them. Their thumbs may have been slightly less agile than their younger counterparts but they were pretty much as engaged as the others with technology. I guess I am a little sceptical of the claims of Prensky as are a number of others (e.g. and am really keen to read the references you listed here. Thank you for this post.



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