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From native to savvy – kids in the digital world

Published: November 3, 2023

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Yes, it is true that kids are growing up in a world that offers many technological tools that did not exist for previous generations. And it’s also true that kids often take to these new tools naturally. However, as responsible caring adults, we cannot assume that just because today’s kids are so-called digital natives, that we can throw up our hands and say there’s nothing to teach them about using technology. Being born into a digital world does NOT automatically make kids digitally savvy. It’s our job as parents or educators to help kids go from being native to savvy.

Who are digital natives?

Where did this term come from anyway? Marc Prensky introduced the idea in the early aughts as a way to refer to those born after 1980, who purportedly grew up alongside digital technologies. He contrasts digital natives with digital immigrants who did not have these digital-rich experiences in their formative early years. Prensky’s main point was to highlight how digital natives interact with the world in a way that’s fundamentally different from the way that digital immigrants do. And, importantly, when immigrants try to talk to natives in their immigrant language, it just won’t make sense for the natives. Therefore, to teach natives successfully and effectively requires that immigrants learn how to “speak native.”

This concept makes a lot of sense. When adults try to connect to kids in a way that honors kids’ experiences, it helps get the message across. And yet, the allure of simplifying an idea was just too great, and before we knew it, the idea of “digital natives” took off. Suddenly the messaging around what it means to be a digital native seemed to be that kids today, as natives, already know all there is to know – or at least more than digital immigrants do. And as adults, we might as well just throw up our hands and accept that therefore we have nothing to teach them.


It’s exactly because kids today don’t know a world without digital technology, that we have to work even harder to equip them with the skills they need. We have an even bigger obligation to help them learn how those digital technologies fit in their lives. In other words, kids need to learn to be digitally savvy – and we ALL have a responsibility to teach them.

What it means to be go from native to savvy

The word savvy can mean “shrewd and knowledgeable; having common sense and good judgement.” This definition is particularly well suited to describing the important aspects of being digitally savvy. Not only do kids need to know the technical aspects, but they also need to know how to use digital tools safely and wisely. Think of it like this: Learning how to drive a car involves at least two processes. One is learning the mechanics of how the car works, like how to make it go and how to make it stop. But simply knowing how to operate a car isn’t the only thing required to learn to drive it on the roads. The other process is about context and safety such as road signs, rules of the road, and so on.

Despite what we may think, despite the ways in which digital devices are now just a normal unavoidable part of life, integrated into so many of the things we do, Digital savvy isn’t something that just develops naturally from spending lots of time staring at screens. Instead, it takes purposeful attempts to help guide kids from native to savvy users of digital media.

Digital literacy: shrewd and knowledgeable

Even kids may admit that they don’t actually just naturally know how to use devices. (And other times they may estimate that they know a lot more about digital devices than they actually do.)

Being knowledgeable about technology first and foremost means having basic technical skills. Adults may not have a lot of confidence in this area, but we can still teach kids (or learn together if need be) basics like managing a device, navigating through the menus, word processing and creating basic content and images. We can also get deeper by learning about coding and other under-the-hood structural skills.

School books and supplies

Digital citizenship: common sense and good judgment

“Digital citizenship is the responsible use of technology to learn, create, and participate”

Common Sense Education

Digital citizenship is a bit more complex than learning technical skills, but is arguably even more important. Learning how to be a good digital citizen encompasses many competencies that are useful in all areas of life, but take on special meaning in the digital world. Prensky himself later added to his assertions about digital natives to say that it was time to talk about “digital wisdom.”

In other words, using common sense and good judgment in the digital world is about being a safe, responsible, ethical, respectful, intentional, healthy, and critical consumer and creator of digital technology. Developing these qualities in kids is the pathway from despairing that digital technologies are ruining societies towards accepting that they’re here to stay and figuring out how to make them work for us. It is the key to becoming good, functioning members of the global, digital community.

So what do we need to move kids from native to savvy?

The 21st century world needs to put digital savvy on the same level of importance as the 123s and ABCs. These skills have become just as essential, just as rudimentary, and just as foundational as a launching pad towards participating successfully in society. This is an all-hands in situation, with buy-in necessary on all fronts.

We need policies that support digital literacy learning! In schools. Educating parents on the difference and why we should still be teaching kids

Parents and educators still have HUGELY important roles to play! It falls to us to help get kids from native to savvy in the digital world.

  • Parents. Yes, of course it starts with parents. The family unit is the number one vessel from which kids learn. Be aware, be in charge, be the main gatekeepers for what your kids are doing. That said, this is a HUGE job! parents can’t – and shouldn’t – be expected to do it all on their own.
  • Schools. Kids who don’t get some amount of instruction in digital savvy are not getting a full comprehensive education. Schools and teachers have a responsibility to guide kids towards being digitally savvy. Make it its own subject, or weave concepts throughout lessons across subjects, or do both. Just make sure it’s there! From classrooms to districts, to national and international curricula learning standards, there need to be concepts of digital savvy included in the schools.
  • Policies. This is a huge job, but its importance cannot be overstated. Organizations, governments, and so on can support parents and educators to know how to teach these skills. They can help hold tech accountable. They can establish standards for using common sense and good judgment in the digital world. And they can address inequalities in terms of access.
  • Tech companies. Here’s looking at you tech companies! As the ones who design and make the tools we all use, there’s a big responsibility here. Responsible tech development must include building digital savvy into the platforms. Help kids understand what they’re doing and what they need to know to be savvy. This can happen by prompting open ended questions, making privacy controls user friendly and transparent, educating kids on best practices like setting good passwords, having open moderation of the platforms, or setting clear community guidelines and terms of service.

From native to savvy in the classroom

The good news is that there absolutely are organizations working towards taking kids from native to savvy already. Just to name a select few: Common Sense, Media Literacy Now, National Association for Media Literacy Education, and ISTE. But the job is big.

Know of more? Get in touch. Get out there. Spread the word. Do the work. Let’s equip our kids with the global digital mindful skills they need!