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Q&A: Harvard's Palfrey explains 'digital natives' to older 'digital immigrants'

Law professor seeks to debunk common myths about those born after 1980

By Heather Havenstein
October 3, 2008 12:00 PM ET

Computerworld - John Palfrey, a professor at Harvard Law School and co-director of the Berkman Center for Internet and Society, has co-written two books examining online issues -- Access Denied, which examines global Internet censorship and filtering, and Born Digital: Understanding the First Generation of Digital Natives. The latter book, published last month, set out to provide "digital immigrants" -- older generations of parents, teachers and others -- with a portrait of "digital natives," who were born after 1980. In a recent interview with Computerworld, Palfrey talked about the latest book, how employers can best coexist with the new digitally immersed generation, and how recommendation engines could provide long-elusive profits to social networks.

What questions did you examine in your research for Born Digital, and what are your fundamental conclusions? Initially the concept was, "What are the myths and what are the realities about how [young] people are using technologies differently [than] their parents and grandparents?"

One myth is that these kids are dumber [than previous generations]. I don't think there is any good evidence to say this is a dumber generation. It certainly is the case that some young people are less likely to go to the library than to look something up on Google. It does say the way in which these young people are getting their news and information is changing. Now, there are an amazing range of sources … and oceans of information that are searchable in databases. [Older people need to ask,] "How do we help young people thrive and deal with things like information overload?"

A second myth is that these kids … are meaner to one another. More people are experiencing bullying in an online environment than before. I wouldn't say these kids are somehow inherently meaner. All of a sudden, the way in which kids [used to] treat others in the schoolyard … is playing out in a public space. It is recorded over time. You can come back later and see these interactions. There is an opportunity for parents and teachers to be closer to what is happening and to participate in the solution.

The third myth is the fact that these kids are in greater danger than they were 10 years ago of being abducted or otherwise physically harmed. The data just doesn't support that.

Which findings in the book were most surprising to you? I didn't find as many young people taking advantage of doing everything they could do with technology. I didn't see the outpouring of creativity I was hoping to see.

I wanted to see that the technology was a gateway to get more young people involved in civic life. I didn't find a huge rush to use these technologies to improve the world. There are examples of incredible social entrepreneurs … but there is not a large-scale rush, which I was hoping to see.

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