Digital natives – understanding today’s young readers



Young parents and their children have never known a world without computers and the many reading tools available today. ©Thinkstock

Who are the digital natives? A digital native is someone who was born during or after the introduction of digital technologies and who has interacted with digital technology from an early age. In other words, to a digital native, smart phones, computers and other digital devices have always existed in their world.

I see this today with my own granddaughters who are 19 months and 15 months old. Very early in their lives, they were already reaching for the TV remote, a cell phone or any other items that had buttons they could push.

Back in the 1980s, I produced a promotional video program for Nylint Toys. The company was about to roll out several large, metal, toy trucks, called Sound Machines, onto the market. It was quite a new concept at the time. This video would be the company’s new product introduction to their retailers across the country. Each truck made real truck sounds. My son appeared in the video and played with several trucks as we shot the scenes. I remember how his eyes lit up at the sounds. He was so excited when he was allowed to keep one of the prototype trucks. Right then I knew things in the toy business were about to change in a very big way.

Middle grade children today have never known a time when their toys didn’t light up, make sounds, sing or talk to them. Before learning to walk, they had already become familiar with smart phones and the many apps available just for kids.

Marc Prensky coined the term digital native in his work “Digital Natives, Digital Immigrants” published in 2001. In his article, he applies the term to a new group of students enrolling in educational establishments.

Not long after, the debate began among authors, publishers, booksellers and others concerning the death of printed books taken over by electronically delivered books. One only has to look at the magazine business to see most of the old standards have either ceased publication, or they’ve gone digital. Many new start-up magazines are offered in a digital format only.

And a publisher like Barbour recently announced Shiloh Run Studios, which will publish original direct-to-digital serialized fiction. Expect to see a lot more publishers doing the same thing.

It’s never been more important to get kids reading, no matter where they choose to find their information

A recent news story reported, “Bexar County, Texas has opened a new library that has no books inside. Instead the library is outfitted with iPad stations and iMacs loaded with digital books available to check out, making it the first digital library in the country.

The library is called the BiblioTech. Patrons can check out eBooks, audiobooks and software training databases, as well as eReaders. The library also hosts computer classes and patrons can use laptops, tablets and desktops at the branch.”

I’m often asked to speak to elementary students in schools. One of the first times I did this, I remember telling the students I had grown up at a time when there were no microwave ovens, no cell phones, computers or any of the other “necessities” kids depend on today. When I tell them it seemed like our family must have been the last one in the world to have a TV, and I had to go to friends’ houses just to watch one, sighs break out across the room from those digital natives. The sighs are quickly followed by comments like, “No microwave?” “No video games?” “I couldn’t live without a TV,” “I’d die,” or “How awful.”

Today I’m participating in a new serialized story concept with a publisher and will be creating serialized stories for middle grade readers. Each story will have a number of segments. Most segments end with a cliffhanger, then the story will finally reach its exciting conclusion. Next, the same characters find themselves in a new adventure or mystery. The title for this series is, “The Accidental Adventures of Kurt Benson and His Friends, Riley and Jordan.” And my first mystery is, “The Cat Burglars.” You can see a sneak peek at

Recent research concludes that readers, adult and children, want their reading material in shorter versions, especially if it’s to be read on an electronic device. Articles ask the question, “Are Smaller, Shorter Books More Appealing to Time-crunched Readers?” The answer from several sources seems to be yes. Even my printed books are shorter than most. The reason for this is I believe it gives young readers a sense of accomplishment when they reach “The End” on the final page. I’m not asking them to commit more time than necessary in order to enjoy reading. And with this new concept of delivering each new chapter, by subscription, for reading on digital devices, middle grade readers will have new options for their reading time.

It’s never been more important to get kids reading, no matter where they choose to find their information. And exciting stories, with cliffhanger chapter endings, delivered to their smart phones and other devices, are a great place to start attracting the digital natives all around us.

MAX ELLIOT ANDERSON is a freelance writer living in Illinois.

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To illustrate the digital point even further, this 1-year-old thinks her printed magazine is broken:


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