In my continued discussion with Dancing with Digital Natives co-editor Michelle Manafy, we talk about the divide between digital natives and older generations with social media and online video, why digital natives sometimes behave very badly with online video, and some ways parents can get more involved.

If you haven’t already done so, read Part 1 of my Interview with Michelle Manafy for a good overview of digital natives (and check out her book, Dancing with Digital Natives). You’ll learn how many experts in business and academia are already transforming how we work, shop, play, and learn – more so than any previous generation. (Also check out her book’s website and blog at

Digital Natives – They’re Not All Who You Think They Are

Michelle, when most people hear the label “digital natives,” they think you’re referring to young adults and pre-adults. But I get from your book that digital natives are a generation that ranges from the very young to those entering the workforce. Is there an accepted definition?

The tricky thing about the term is that it’s not so tightly defined age-wise as some of the generational labels. Some generational labels are really finite. The thing about immersion in digital technology is that it is really very dependent on your life experience. So while you might say that kids born as of today on will certainly have at least a minimal level of exposure to digital technology, not every kid born between 1980-1990 did.

There’s also something to be said for the fact that you, me, a whole lot of us, because of the profession we’re in (the Internet), we find our own selves surrounded by early adopters. 90% of the people we associate with are early adopters so they share a lot of characteristics with this generation, even though they we are the “digital immigrants” who came before them.

Why New Learning Opportunities for Digital Natives Requires Teaching “Net Citizenship”

Many of the experts in business and academia who contributed to your book seem to tie in many of the new learning opportunities brought about by technology – that are afforded to digital natives – with an newfound emphasis on social responsibility. That’s not just an expectation they have with digital natives, but with how the older generations utilize the “social technology” as well.

One of the things that comes up throughout the book is this idea that just because there is a facility with, a comfort with, an adeptness with digital technology – that does not mean you suddenly get to abandon your role as mentor, parent, teacher. A person who’s of an earlier generation doesn’t suddenly get to say, “Oh, okay, you’re a digital native and you’re better at it than me.  Go to town.” You see, digital natives still need that level of guidance in the world from the older generations – to help them make good decisions – to use their new powers brought about by technology for good, not evil – right?

 “Social Video Criminals?” The Growing Conflict between Digital Natives and Authority Figures

Evan Emory

Evan Emory

Well if you want to get into the whole “good versus evil” debate between digital natives and older generations – take the case of now 22-year old Evan Emory, who earlier this year had posted a sexually explicit video on YouTube featuring children in his own community, thinking it would play well for laughs. He wound up getting arrested and jailed, and had to plea to a felony charge. A lot of angry parents still want his head for how he involved their own children. Yet many of his peers say it was just a silly joke and he meant no one any real harm, since it was all edited to make something appear that never actually happened. And then there was the local DA’s office which originally charged him with distributing child pornography (and later was plead to a lesser charge). It shows how much polarity there can be when both sides are saying it’s the other group that doesn’t “get it.” What the digital natives in his town seem to be saying is that the older generation doesn’t care to understand them.

That’s all the more reason why we as the preceding generation, we as parents and mentors, we have to get it.  We have to understand it, and try to understand them. Evan Emory’s situation does seem nebulous because clearly he was doing something altogether different from what those parents and the local law enforcement were accusing him of. The criminal intent isn’t there at all.  I don’t think Evan was really thinking at all about the local repercussions.

And there’s a saying I remember back when I interviewed Chris Tolles’, CEO of the local news aggregator site, Topix. He said something I thought was very apropos to this particular situation, which is, “Everybody online lives somewhere.” I think that’s something that’s lost on many digital natives, because it’s real easy to feel invulnerable to what you do online, where you think you won’t be subject to any actual physical harm. Well, Evan Emory found out otherwise, the really hard way.

But least to many people like us who are immersed in digital culture like ourselves – not all of us, but many – as stupid as this activity was, we would never fathom that to be child pornography, or perhaps even intended to be malicious in any way.

Not at all. Was Evan Emory’s head even there?  Like many of his fellow digital natives, his head is out there on YouTube trying to get fans, trying to get famous.

Plus I think for many people who have a “digital mindset” of feeling always-on, always-connected, always-sharing… it can create almost a feeling of an addiction and contribute to bad judgment, maybe? It’s like, “I know this is wrong, but dammit I want to get noticed. I need my fix.” And then we have the outside media that I’ll argue that encourages that kind of bad behavior, and rewards it with attention and notoriety.

Well I hate to break it to you, but that’s not new to this generation. Many of us want to get noticed. Heck, I want to get noticed. And as for conditioning and rewarding bad behavior, well how many times when you were young did you see the bully get more attention than the straight-A student, or just a student who wasn’t causing anyone any problems and following what they thought were supposed to be the rules?  Trust me I know – I was the straight-A student getting bullied. And what happens is it’s the bullies, the problem children, who are getting more counseling; they’re the ones still getting more of the attention.

I mean there’s a lot of legal gray (and I’m no legal expert), but what struck me personally is all young people are impulsive.  That didn’t suddenly change because they’re digital.  All young people — we’ve all done it, make some decisions that we later regret.

That seems to be part of the problem, is when you have the wrongdoers (both those not meaning to cause anyone real harm, and those who are truly malicious) getting more than their fair share of the attention. Well, that’s exactly the reward system with social media and online video sharing sites like YouTube, isn’t it? Most of us are drawn to the “bad videos,” the bad behavior, the bad people online. It’s easy to see how digital natives think that’s how the older generation rewards it, and sends mixed messages.

There are just so many situations, particularly with young people. They’re vulnerable.  They need attention. Attention for them is like sunlight to flowers.  They need attention to grow.  If we can find a way to give them more positive attention – to find ways to value and reward what is good rather than giving so much attention to what is bad – but that has always been our struggle.

And the problem is as we see with popularity of reality TV carrying over into the online world, online video – you and I know it’s bad, sometimes really bad.  Everybody knows it’s bad, but at the same time, look at the ratings, look at the viewership of some of these train wreck TV shows.  We cannot help ourselves as a society by looking at a car wreck as we drive by.  I can’t change that about human beings.  Bad will always get views.  Girls beating girls up in the locker room, much as it sickens me, will always get views. We can’t seem to turn away from looking.

Ways to Teach & Train Digital Natives To Be Socially Responsible “Digital Citizens”

I think maybe what you’re saying is, the challenge is to find ways of making digital natives and digital immigrants feel like it’s cool and empowering to be socially responsible. Take for example, with successful education on illicit drug use. If there’s a way to incentivize digital natives with wanting to be ethical and feeling more powerful for being ethical and having an audience for being ethical, and a platform and a community of catching those who might have been the bullies online and saying, “I’m not going to be the bully.  I now have the power to fight that bully and to fight that bad stuff.” And also, to feel like their peers, their teachers, and their authority figures support them. Sort of a community – strength in numbers, with merit badges.

Well, as ever with kids, I would say it starts at home.  It starts with informed, educated parents whom every day are teaching their kids to use their powers for good.

That almost sounds like training your “digital superhero,” corny as it sounds. But with the feeling of empowerment it gives, and trying to balance that newfound power with teaching how to conduct ourselves – these are life lessons that should carry over into the organic world and not just the virtual ones.

I’m doing that myself with my own kid every day; but I know perfectly well that that’s not going to change every kid, not every parent is going to commit the time, not every parent is even going to see that that’s their job or their responsibility.

I can’t tell you how many situations I run into where parents say, “The school should be dealing with it.”  Okay, then, so let’s now take it out to the schools.  Yes, it starts at home, maybe that’s happening, maybe that’s not.  So we take it to school.  And as you said, there are a lot of opportunities in educational settings to leverage these technologies, right, to teach, certainly.  But that — but for educators who actually understand the psychology, the motivation here and to some extent the tools, they can create learning environments in which they’re leveraging these tools on a daily basis.  They’re using those community dynamics in the classroom digitally as well, socially mediated technologies, and in the process, rewarding and valuing that which is good.

So lets talk about rewards for positive learning and behavior with digital natives. We’re traditionally used to rewarding kids for high marks for good performance in learning with A’s. But do digital natives respond to a reward system that’s entirely different?

Well, again, the acknowledgement from your peers in the physical world does count.  And if you can then provide those students with an ever-larger audience… say for example, the individual or group who designs the best game, we will take it to regionals.  We will take it to statewide championships, and of course we’ll provide opportunities for these young people to share their successes with their networks online as well!

Sounds like you’re talking about being on a debate team. I think what many digital natives and their predecessors have in common that they could all around – we like to argue about what were passionate about. And social media, including online video, has allowed us for the most part, a good outlet for people to just argue. I don’t see arguing as a bad thing at all, again as long as you can teach a degree of social responsibility, respect, and transparency with doing it.

God, I love arguing.  It makes my brain so happy. I did debate back in the day. It was a big deal for us to get to go to state finals. I definitely think that’s why educators need to stop with the shying away from digital and social, where they have the problematic attitude of, “Well, we’re just going to give them a lecture on cyber bullying and that’ll teach them.”  Instead they have to be embracing and engaging them through these technologies and using these as learning opportunities; it’s going to have so much more value to these digital natives than what these authority figures and educators are trying to teach them.

Stay Tuned For the Final Part of My Discussion with Michelle Manafy…

That’s right, there’s one more! Next time we talk about some fears the older generation has with digital natives and digital culture, and her advice for how they can overcome their own “fear of video” online (just like she managed to do!)

 Image courtesy of iStockphoto, ©nico blue #1438364