Digital natives and identity development: What does this mean for parents and educators?


High-Tech Environment

Deontae Massey-Johnson

Technology is relatively new in the grand scheme of life in the United States of America. The first computer was sold in 1971 and it was not being utilized for leisure activity or educational purposes as the modern era would think, it was mainly used for various programs and businesses. The generation during the time of the technological paradigm had doubts regarding such an abstract and uncomfortable idea. The idea of switching from an industrial way of living to an informed way of living was sought out to be crazy and impossible. Fast forward to modern society, now an abundant amount of people utilize various technological sources and even have computers occupying space in their pockets, purses, and hands at all times. The 21st century has been granted with the fascinating advancement and improvement of technology throughout the decades. But, more specifically, Americans born between the years 1995 to 2012, known as the iGen (a shortened descriptor for internet generation), have been able to thrive in society due to their effective ability to easily slither through the world of technology.

The sociocultural perspective of development states that a child’s cognition is constructed by the social environment. Russian psychologist, Lev Vygotsky, proposed the sociocultural theory based on the sociocultural perspective. The sociocultural theory took a valid shot at describing child development. Vygotsky believed that the development of a child “is guided by adults interacting with children, with cultural context determining largely how, where, and when these interactions take place.” (Bjorklund and Causey, 2018, pp. 68-69). The development of a child is enhanced through the proper interaction with an adult in an appropriate cultural context. One’s cultural environment they inhabit dictates how an individual thinks and learns as well as what an individual thinks and learns. Kids today are digital natives who thrive in tech-rich environments. Learning nowadays doesn’t consist of going to the library and breaking out an encyclopedia to read information to gain knowledge. For iGen (1995-2012), from the time a person was born to the present day, they have been exposed to numerous sources of technological gadgets. iGen has been learning exclusively through the creation of the technology which is now considered the norm in today’s society. Learning revolves around technology. In such a new “world”, the norm for the American culture has integrated the usage of technology into one’s everyday life.

Technology does best what humans can’t do. For example, parents may get exhausted from consistently being attentive to their baby or toddler but technology doesn’t get tired. Parents can set up cameras next to their child and watch them from basically anywhere they please. Or maybe substituting their presence with a movie on a phone or a tv gives the parent a break but giving the child a new experience they can benefit from. The new experience enables the child to develop knowledge on the current situation and hopefully use the new knowledge for future purposes. Also, the 21st century has had the privilege to live through the inventions of many new tools of intellectual adaptation. Tools of intellectual adaptation, which is associated with Vygotsky’s sociocultural theory, “are methods of thinking and problem solving that children internalize from their interactions with more competent members of society and that permits children to use their basic mental functions more adaptively.” (Bjorklund and Causey, 2018, pp. 71). There are two types of tools of intellectual adaptation. There are physical artifacts and symbolic artifacts. In today’s society the physical artifact, the computer, has had the most profound impact on acquiring information across all age groups. Access to computers enables humans to navigate through the world and acquire knowledge during their journey. Computers allow anyone with access to them to flourish through society because the immediate access to obtaining valuable information makes learning more accessible and easily obtainable.

Such a near-universal change in how we communicate and gather information has had (and will continue) to have a significant impact on cognitive development. Technology is the center of the iGen culture. Children and teenagers invest countless hours utilizing the aiding technological tools they are exposed to. The endless interaction with technology enables not only iGen but all current Americans to acquire knowledge and weave through life with in-reach assistance. Although there is much positivity surrounding technology, many people may still believe that kids shouldn’t be learning through the interaction with technology but learning through hands-on experience instead. Many people are terrified that technology will cause a trade-off that creates an opportunity cost, such that interaction with tech will disallow opportunities to construct knowledge through play. Play is the work of children, this is how they absorb and utilize new information effectively and on their own. If kids are being culturized to use technology at a young age there can be developmental consequences in the near future due to the lack of play.

Hands-on interaction is, in fact, a very successful way of obtaining information. Especially for kids and adolescents, the hands-on experience is how they fill their minds with knowledge and shape their brains. Jean Piaget (1896- 1980), a Swiss Psychologist, believed that human cognitive development was solely based on the child’s interactions with their environment. Piaget believed that children “are active initiators and seekers of stimulation,” (Bjorklund and Causey, 2018, pp. 155). Motivation to learn is within the child and their given environment either enhances the motivation or depletes the motivation. In the 20th century, the learning style revolved around hands-on interactions. Kids would have to go to the library, scour through an infinite number of books until they choose one, and then prop it open to start the process of learning. This way of learning can be seen as lengthy and can discourage children from learning. Nowadays, information is at the tip of your thumb. Learning has never been easier and more encouraged. The ability to pull up a search engine like Google or Bing, insert a question, and receive an instantaneous answer allows for smooth learning. The simplicity in the process motivates kids to learn. Hands-on experience is efficient in learning new information but that hands-on experience can still come from the play that kids are involved in.

Play allows kids to still learn and gain the social interaction they need to successfully develop and effectively learn. A type of play that most children engage in by around fifteen months of age is symbolic play. Symbolic play is “an “as if” orientation to objects, actions, and peers that advances during early childhood as a result of children’s growing abilities to use symbols to represent something other than itself.” (Bjorklund and Causey, 2018, pp. 181). The engagement in symbolic play enhances a child’s cognitive capabilities. Symbolic play peaks around the age of three and this is due to the ability to use mental representation (a capability a 15-month-old does not possess). The constant play puts the brain to work, new knowledge floods through their mind due to their ability to be able to represent the actions and thoughts of other people. During the peak of play, children engage in many forms of play but the sociodramatic play is most common because it is social. Sociodramatic play is “which children play different roles and follow a storyline as if they were in a theatrical performance.” (Bjorklund and Causey, 2018, pp. 181). This type of play involves not only substituting the thought of an object for another, but they must be able to indeed represent the actions and thoughts of other people. The consistent construction and usage of mental representation help children learn and cognitively progress.

Piaget’s theory has influenced the cognitive field of psychology tremendously. There are many concepts that he proposed that society believes to hold truth still to this day but have we thrown out the ones that have no relevance to date. One particular concept we keep from Piaget’s nativist (nature over nurture) perspective is “our mind is set up for us to construct it.” (Kleinknecht, 2020). Piaget believed that all humans are born with a “starter set” of skills that aid us through survival. These skills sophisticate as we build on them through the interaction with our given environment. As humans, our brains developed to utilize technology. The plasticity of our brain allows us to change to the demands of such an abstract concept. The ability to use technology, more specifically, to be computer cultured in today’s society “affects not only what jobs we have and, thus, our income, but it also influences how one learns, how (and what) one remembers, and how one solves problems.” (Bjorklund and Causey, 2018, pp. 73). Kids during this tech-rich generation should take advantage of the devices placed in society so they can learn and succeed in their future.

The purpose of technology is to assist humans in simple tasks that are presumed to be hassles in their everyday life. The captivating invention of the computer in the 20th century and the advancement of it through the 21st century leaves many older generations to have an anti point of view towards such a supportive creation. In today’s era, kids should be encouraged to learn through their interactions with technology and be able to navigate through the tech-world. In times like the COVID-19 pandemic that has struck the nation; education, work, and social interactions have been remotely through technological devices. So an individual’s ability to utilize these devices sets them apart from an individual that doesn’t possess the skills to properly use them during such a catastrophic time. This is the age of digital natives, so why handcuff your child to a stone-age culture when they are surrounded by a high- tech environment?


Bjorklund, D. F., Causey, K. B. (2018). Chapter 3: Social construction of mind. Children’s thinking: Cognitive development and individual differences. (pp. 65- 91). SAGE Publications.

Bjorklund, D. F., Causey, K. B. (2018). Chapter 5: Thinking in symbols. Children’s thinking: Cognitive development and individual differences. (pp. 147- 197). SAGE Publications.

Kleinknecht, E. (2020, April 10th). Thinking in symbols- Piaget’s grand theory (PowerPoint slides). Moodle@PacU.