Growing up digital – Online Identity and the Digital Generation

Apr 9, 2015 |4 min read

The phrase ‘digital natives’ was coined by Mark Prensky, an author and educational expert, back in 2001.  

Digital Natives: students today are all ‘native speakers’ of the digital language of computers, video games and the Internet…Those of us who were not born into the digital world but have, at some later point in our lives, become fascinated by and adopted many or most aspects of the new technology are, and always will be compared to them, Digital Immigrants.” Marc Prensky, 2001.

Prensky has his detractors – there are many articles available that dismiss this terminology as overly simplistic, caricatured or simply irrelevant, but even a brief flick through YouTube demonstrates why the post-millennial generation should be considered the first true digital natives.

Young people are by nature early adopters of new technology and behaviours – a recent study from Ofcom (of 2000 adults and 800 children) showed that UK six year olds claim to have the same understanding of communications technology as 45 year olds. 88% of 16-24s own a smartphone, compared to 14% among those aged 65+. These young adults are glued to their smartphones for 3 hours and 36 minutes each day, nearly three times the 1hr 22min average across all adults. With unprecedented access to technology from an early age, behaviours of communication and relationship building are increasingly being played out online vs. IRL (in real life). This rapidly increasing behavioural gap is currently under examination as part of the Study of Cognition, Adolescents and Mobile Phones (SCAMP) by Imperial College London – following several thousand London secondary school pupils across London, to investigate whether their use of digital technology might affect their neurocognitive or behavioural development. 

The ‘Always On’ Generation

The new generation of digital natives are ‘Always On’, they are constantly connected with 24/7 access to information, communication and transaction – wherever, whenever. In the UK, smartphones are used daily by 56% 9- to 16-year-olds, laptops are used by 47%. They are living in a world of individual empowerment and self-education where they have a screen for every moment, entertainment & information comes in bite-size portions and multitasking across platforms has become the default. In an open access world, young people are spoilt for choice and expectations of having instantaneous access to high quality content at a free/low cost has become the norm.

Digital natives have the world at their fingertips and (with parental/guardian support) have the freedom, time and energy to absorb as much of it as they wish. For digital natives, the Internet is all-encompassing and seamlessly woven into their lives – an in-exhaustible source of information, entertainment and communication. Social platforms like YouTube, Vine, Snapchat, Instagram and games like Minecraft beautifully demonstrate young people’s incredible capacity to create, experiment, communicate and learn in digital spaces. 12-15 year olds are developing fundamentally different communication habits than older generations, even compared to the advanced 16-24 age group. Just 3% of their communications time is spent making voice calls, while the vast majority (94%) is text based – such as instant messaging and social networking. 

‘Brand Me’ and the Constellation of Self

The millennial generation has access to networks of friends and followers across multiple platforms – they are often the first to embrace new platforms and grow networks at a rapid speed. With the capacity to communicate with such a widely diverse range of audiences online, people feel an inherent need to create and maintain Brand Me. Projecting a digital manifestation of their lives and thoughts through an ongoing narrative of self-expression and tailored curation of digital content. Brand Me can be built and maintained across a multitude of social digital platforms – a Constellation of Self  across social networking platforms. Digital natives choose different social networking platforms to express how they feel (publically or privately) to their preferred audience.

The persona we project in our online social world is carefully considered and vital to our sense of self recognition. Attention is currency & social capital has become structured and gamified with social ‘scores’ – likes, favourites, comments, replies, shares and retweets on public display all contribute to an addictive cycle of social validation where the size and reach of your online presence is a powerful status symbol. For those who are heavily invested in online platforms, self-esteem & confidence levels can be directly related to the amount of attention they are being given by others online. This can lead to people developing an acute fear of missing out – a desire to stay continually connected with what others are doing and a danger of never feeling fully satisfied with their own lives in comparison to others

The amplified online world

The work we have done with the Talking Taboos foundation (in association with Leith and Young Minds) highlighted that amplification of emotions in online spaces is inevitable – this can be especially true of those only just finding their place socially. Teenage lives, often full of drama in the ‘real’ world can become far more exaggerated when played out online.

With young people becoming increasingly aware of their digital footprint and the risk of public judgement in public digital spaces, they are increasingly migrating to platforms that offer more private, text/image/video based and disposable communication (Snapchat/WhatsApp). For the more traditional public platforms (Facebook/Twitter), they are increasingly becoming more content curation focused or disengaging entirely. 

Implications for brands & research

So what does all of this mean for brands and for research? Digital research allows us to harness the habitually online behaviours of the digitally empowered to give us new and exciting data sources:

However despite the varied and fantastic benefits of digital tools, it is crucial to remember:

The future of digital research is bright – new technologies are constantly opening up new opportunities to bring us closer to people’s lives, but we must never lose sight of how valuable it can be observe and interrogate behaviour in context and in person, even when examining online behaviour.