In many developed countries, more than 90% of young people are considered digital natives, with South Korea leading the way at 99.6%. But many developing countries lag far behind — all the way down to the Pacific island of Timor-Leste, where a mere 0.6% of 15- to-24-year-olds are digital natives.
A digital divide between rich and poor is nothing new, but the new study identifies an interesting twist on the phenomenon. It shows that in the developed world, there is hardly any generational gap anymore between internet users. Most people in wealthy countries are online — more than 84% of the total adult population, both young and old, in South Korea, for example. Yet there is a very real generation gap in many developing countries.
In countries like Burundi, Eritrea and Timor-Leste, young people are nearly three times more likely to be internet users than the overall adult population. In many other African, Asian and Latin American countries, the divide between digital natives and the rest of the population is also far more significant than in the developed world.
Michael Best, a Georgia Tech professor who coordinated the study, said the findings highlighted a paradox about the concept of digital natives, a term that is often bandied about for marketing purposes. The supposed distinction between always-on members of the millennial generation and their older counterparts is actually much less pronounced in industrial nations than elsewhere in the world.
"Everyone's fascination with digital nativism in the US or, say, Scandinavia is fine, but the places where this phenomenon probably has the most impact is low-income countries in Africa or Asia," Best said. "The places where it is most salient are those where the least amount of attention has been paid to it."
There are also striking differences among developing countries. Malaysia, for example, fares well even against many wealthier countries — 75% of 15- to-24-year-olds are digital natives. As a percentage of the total population, 13.4% of Malaysians are digital natives. Malaysia ranks fourth, behind Iceland, New Zealand and South Korea, on this measure, which the study suggests will be an important determinant of a country's future potential to take advantage of the economic, political and cultural opportunities of net use.
Avariety of factors, including demographics, contribute to a higher percentage of digital natives; a country with a booming young population might have more digital natives than a country with older demographics, even if more people over all are online in the "older" country. In Japan, for example, 99.5% of 15- to 24-year-olds are digital natives, but this equates to only 9.6% of the total population, putting Japan in 47th place by this measure.