You Are Not a Digital Native: on the publication of the Homeland paperback, a letter to kids

The US paperback of my novel Homeland comes out today, and I've written an open letter to teenagers for to celebrate it: You Are Not a Digital Native. I used the opportunity to draw a connection between kids being told that as "digital natives," everything they do embodies some mystical truth about what the Internet is for, and the way that surveillance companies like Facebook suck up their personal data by the truckload and excuse themselves by saying "digital natives" have demonstrated that privacy is dead.

As researchers like danah boyd have pointed out, a much more plausible explanation for teens' privacy disclosures is that they're making mistakes, because they're teenagers, and teenagers learn to be adults by making (and learning from) mistakes. I finish the piece with a list of tools that teens can use to have a more private, more fulfilling online social life.

They say that the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II ordered a group of children to be raised without any human interaction so that he could observe their “natural” behavior, untainted by human culture, and find out the true, deep nature of the human animal.

If you were born around the turn of the 21st century, you’ve probably had to endure someone calling you a “digital native” at least once. At first, this kind of sounds like a good thing to be—raised without the taint of the offline world, and so imbued with a kind of mystic sixth sense about how the Internet should be.

But children aren’t mystic innocents. They’re young people, learning how to be adult people, and they learn how to be adults the way all humans learn: by making mistakes. All humans screw up, but kids have an excuse: they haven’t yet learned the lessons the screw-ups can impart. If you want to double your success rate, you have to triple your failure rate.

The problem with being a “digital native” is that it transforms all of your screw-ups into revealed deep truths about how humans are supposed to use the Internet. So if you make mistakes with your Internet privacy, not only do the companies who set the stage for those mistakes (and profited from them) get off Scot-free, but everyone else who raises privacy concerns is dismissed out of hand. After all, if the “digital natives” supposedly don’t care about their privacy, then anyone who does is a laughable, dinosauric idiot, who isn’t Down With the Kids.

You Are Not a Digital Native: Privacy in the Age of the Internet