Digital natives grew up with computers.
In his last column, futurist David Houle analyzed the collective decision-making of the millennial generation, which is now in their 20s. Now, he goes even younger, investigating the generation of digital natives now in their teens and tweens.
In my last column, I wrote that today's children are actually two generations, the millennials and the digital natives. The population of these two generations will be 2 million greater than the baby boom generation, a truly significant statistic that means these two generations will shape the future of the United States for the next 40 years.

The millennials are the generation that has come of age in this millennium, meaning that they are, for the most part, now in their 20s. The digital natives generally are 18 and under. Now that you know about the millennials, I would like to introduce you to the digital natives. It is this generation that, in my experience with audiences, creates the greatest amount of conversation with parents and grandparents.

The digital natives are the very first generation to be born into the digital world. The digital landscape is their native land. We grew up in the analog world, so we are immigrants to this new digital land. Sometime during our lifetime, we gradually moved from analog to digital. We were adults when we got our first cell phone, bought our first CD or DVD or even purchased or had our first computer. Not the digital natives.

This generation cannot remember not having a computer in the home, cannot remember Mom and Dad not having cell phones, cannot remember watching TV without dozens—if not hundreds—of channels, and even more importantly, cannot remember not having access to the Internet. They are the very first generation to experience all of this as children. This has made them different. Simply put, they are distinctly different than their parents and even different than the older millennials in their late 20s.

Many of us, as adults, pride ourselves on our ability to multitask. Think you're good at it? Just ask a 12-year-old about multitasking while she watches TV with her earphones on, rattling off a dozen texts in a few minutes. She will look at you with a strange look. This is just what she does most of the time; she doesn't think of it as something to be proud of—it's just the way she operates.

Studies—and, certainly, parental experiences—show that digital natives can concentrate on more than one thing at a time. In my opinion, the huge percentage increase in the diagnosis of attention deficient disorder in American children in the past 20 years is largely due to a combination of two factors: First, they can concentrate on more than one thing at a time; and second, we don't think they can! Now, of course, there are children who truly do have ADD, just as there are adults that do. I just think that we, as parents, have overreacted a bit.

My aha! moment regarding this happened when my stepson Jordan was 13 and in the eighth grade. One evening at the dinner table, he said he had a lot of homework, so, wanting to be a good parent, I waited 45 minutes before I went into his room to make sure he was actually doing his homework. When I opened the door, I saw his TV on, his headphones half on his head and four instant messaging windows open on the computer on which he was doing his homework. I started to feel the parental anger rise up within me. I was about to say something strong, when it hit me: Jordan was a straight-A student! At that moment, I realized I was about ready to rag not because he was doing something wrong, but because there was no way I could do homework like that. When I was his age, I had to turn off the radio and shut the door to my room to be able to concentrate. To this day, I cannot write creatively with the TV on.

This seems to be a universal experience with parents of digital natives. When I speak to audiences, I ask for a show of hands of parents who have children under the age of 18. I tell that story about Jordan and his homework. When I get to the part about opening the door to Jordan's room, I ask those who raised their hands, "And what did I see?" They all answer things like "the TV was on," "music was playing," "texting." Guaranteed audience response, every time!

If you have a child under the age of 10, do you have to help them with the computer? Of course not! The only thing you had to do was show them how to turn it on the first time. Some CEOs have told me stories about how they get their 10- or 12-year-old children do their PowerPoint presentations for them.

The digital natives are not just creating our presentations and constantly multitasking, they are also teaching us how to communicate in this digital world. I never really got into texting until I realized it was the only way I could truly reach my son or my stepson. When my son Christopher was in college, if I needed to send important information to him, I had to get creative to actually get it to him. He didn't check his email frequently—because he was always on Facebook or texting. So I started texting him to check his email.

A simplistic rule: If you're over 35, you think email is cool; if you're in your 20s you think IM is cool; if you're under 20, it is texting. Just look at your cell phone bill. Parents have many more call minutes than number of texts. For digital natives, it's just the opposite—racking up 4,000 to 7,000 texts per month is not at all unusual. How long did it take you to get the unlimited texting plan from your cellular carrier? Probably a month.

In my last column, I wrote that the millennials will be viewed by future historians as the generation of leaders and managers who faced and solved many of the large problems we are leaving to them. I think that these same historians will look back at the digital native generation as the innovators who helped solve these problems. More importantly, the digital natives will be viewed as one of the greatest generations of artists and creators, and they even may signal the beginning of a new level of connected human consciousness. After all, they are the first generation to grow up in a globally connected, always-on world.

Do you have any parental experiences you care to share about raising your digital native children? Please share them below.

David Houle is an award-winning futurist and strategist who has launched successful brands and is an in-demand speaker about the future. He writes the popular futurist blog Evolution Shift and lives his life slightly ahead of the curve.


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