Don Tapscott's work is highly regarded in the field of research of children and computers.  Do a quick survey of Internet sites and periodical articles and you'll find him mentioned nearly everywhere.  What is harder to find is good criticism of his arguments.  HOWEVER, THIS DOES NOT MEAN THAT HE'S CORRECT.  Tapscott's theories deserve a closer look.  Specifically:

Show Me the $$

     Don Tapscott is the head of a major computerization movement organization, whose best interest is served by finding that the "N" Generation is fundamentally different.

     Tapscott is the Chairman and co-founder of The Alliance for Converging Technologies as well as President of New Paradigm Learning Technologies.  Both are devoted to promoting business strategy in the information age.  The members of The Alliance for Converging Technologies include such companies as Apple Computer, AT&T, Compaq, IBM, McGraw-Hill, MCI, Microsoft, Oracle, Peoplesoft, Hewlett Packard, and Sprint.  Obviously these companies have a vested interested in the promotion of computers, the internet, and other technologies.  "Growing up Digital  clearly fits the agenda of many major companies who see the booming market for all sorts of products and services...that will be consumed by the K-16 kids." (Cisler, 1998

       As the New Paradigm Learning Technologies' review of Growing Up Digital states: "Tapscott explains why there is no issue more important to strategists, managers, policy makers and marketers than to understand the Net Generation." (Emphasis Added)

     This information is important if we are  to study Tapscott's work critically.  For example, it comes as no surprise that, in his chapter on education, he pushes for more and more integration of the newest advancements.  As Steve Cisler points out, "Tapscott believes that schools should have the latest gear...but he seems unaware of the budgeting issues that arise when companies convince educators that they have to churn the workstations in their labs and classrooms at a furious rate or be 'left behind'."  This oversight is a bit easier to understand given that Tapscott's salary is paid, in part, by the world's largest computer manufacturer and the world's two largest software companies.

     I do not mean to imply that Tapscott is being intentionally misleading.  However, the environment he lives and works in reenforces his ideas as correct and shields him from thinking about problems others may see.  The real problem is that his word is accepted as fact by many, including Vice President Al Gore, who called him "one of the world's leading cyber-gurus."

That said, lets look at Tapscott's two greatest inconsistencies:

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It's the Gender Gap, Stupid!

   Tapscott paints a far too rosy picture of todays children and their interactions on the Internet, glossing over the obvious and continuous problems of Gender and socio-economic differences. 

     One of the constant trends since Internet usage has been measured has been the gap between usage by males and females.  Tapscott seems to believe that these differences are being erased by changing generations.  Longitudinal studies show that the gender gap has closed as more women joined the Net, but the latest data indicates that the gap has stopped shrinking. 

     Tapscott, however, is quick to dismiss these differences, and asserts that "there is a universality in outlook, in behavior" (Cisler) to be found in N-Gen children.  However, serious differences based upon gender undermine his conclusions.   The benefical effects of interaction and discovery can only be had by those participating online.  Even then, one has to worry about young girls being socialized into a world where men clearly dominate.  For example, one newsgroup study found that when female participation neared 50%, the males became so upset that many threatened to leave the list.  What will happen to these kids when they leave the safety of Free Zone?

     At the same time, these children do not live their lives simply online.  They will be shaped by interactions at home, at school, and in public places.  The media, advertising, and entertainment industries will send them messages.  If the gender gap is erased online, it is much more likely to be a product of changes in attitudes that come from all aspects of society.

     Another related problem is the gap between technological "haves" and "have-nots."  Tapscott talks at length about this "digital divide."  The problem here is that if we assume that kids with access to computers show increased intelligence, self-confidence, and the like, that kids without access lack these things. 

    This trend is rightly unsettling to Tapscottites, since it damages their picture of children as pure and unbiased minds, initimately connected to the internet and to each other.  The idea that N-Gen children are all very similar, regardless of technology usage, is hard to prove.  To quote Steve Cisler,  "other than saying his team worked with a large number of young subjects, he does not show that their views will necessarily be extended to the ones who are not online or to those who use it much less frequently." 

     To his credit, Tapscott points out that his group "met a wide variety of kids from many different backgrounds who together covered all [the] variables."  However, the porportion of kids from these different backgrounds is also important.  Further, it is hard to apply generalizations to a generation by looking at a highly selective group of its members.  If we surveyed all the Gen Xers in prison, we would conclude that this generation is inherently violent and should be regarded as a threat.   Also, Tapscott merely looked at the children's online activities.  It would be highly interesting to observe these kids in their everyday lives and see if they exhibit the same characteristics.

     Tapscott, then needs to deal with these issues.  Ever major study of computer use that has gender as a variable has turned up strong gender differences.  Economic differences are also well-known.  The question to be asked is whether the N-Gen is a group of upper class white males, along with a few minorities or whether it is more universal.  And, if N-Gen values are universal, are computers the cause? 

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Correlation Does Not Equal Causation

     Tapscott is far too quick to attribute inherent differences in todays children to their use of computers and the Internet.  Generational differences arem caused by a variety of factors, of which computerization is only a small part.  Others have studied the differences between Gen Xers and N Gen children and have drawn conclusions similar to Tapscott's.

     So, then, the question is whether the N Gen children are different because of computer use or whether they would be different regardless of computer use.  Tapscott would say yes, while others, such as Neil Murray, find that the latest generation, which he calls the "Millennials", has been raised in a totally different manner than the Gen Xers and other previous generations. 

     The Millennials, according to Neil Howe and William Strauss (who coined the term) argue that this generation is much like the one that grew up to fight in World War Two.  Much like the "G.I. Generation" was fundamentally different from the Lost Generation that preceded it, Millennials are going to be strikingly different from Generation X.  The most fundamental of those differences is that these children "will probably be very well integrated into community norms, seeing "the system" as basically friendly to their interests, supportive of their aims."(Murray, 40)  If the achievements of the G.I. generation are any indication, this will be a very successful and powerful group.

     Tapscott, however, doesn't believe in this theory of generational cycles.  He sees the N generation as a first in human history: the "Generation Lap", where children have vastly more knowledge of technology than their parents.  Tapscott is too quick to equate the Generation Lap with the Generation Gap:

"From our research, the children of the digital age appear to be smart, accepting of diversity, curious, assertive self-reliant, high in self-esteem, and global in orientation.  Evidence suggests they process information differently than their predecessors; they have new tools for self development and making their way through adolescence."

     Murray completely agrees with the first half of this statement.  He sees the Millennials as "better prepared, more confident...more willing to do what it takes to succeed."  Further, "the children grow up accustomed to achieving, expecting it of themselves, finding avenues that permit it." (Murray, 42)

     The reason for these attitudes, he continues, is that these kids are raised in a nuturing environment where they are the focus.  "Their young lives are whirlwinds of activity centered on them, arranged for their benefit by adults."(Murray, 40)  Self-confidence, assertiveness, and high self esteem come from the fact these kids are raised to succeed.  To again quote Murray (p. 42), "the parents will conduct an exhaustive search to find the one activity at which their kid can excel.  Success must be attained, failure avoided."

     Murray mentions technology, and computers only once in his article, stated that it has become transparent to this generation.  For them, "technology will be taken for granted."(Murray, 42)  The differences he describes in Tapscott's N-Generation arise purely from parental upbringing.  Interestingly, children raised in this manner also fit into the same socio-economic classes that typically own computers.   What we have, then, are two separate explanations for the same characteristic.  Tapscott  would be hard pressed to prove that using computers is the cause of the positive traits associated with the newest generation.  However, his writings, and his employer, lead you to believe exactly that.   One of the more interesting ideas Tapscott expresses is that "the traits ascribed to kids already online will be extended to those who aren't." (Cisler)  Could this idea of "universality" not indicate that use of computers is not important in determining these characteristics?

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Final Thoughts

     As with any work, it is important to challenge the assertions made.  Tapscott's research is imperfect and his views are highly clouded by life experiences.  His book is much more narrative than scientific, and reflects the views of his employer.  Before Tapscott's views can be accepted, a much broader and more universal study of kids this age needs to be done.  If we are to assert that the N-Gen is truly different, even online, then we must look at how gender and economic differences are being handled.  We muct also look at those who have less exposure to computers.  And, if universal traits are found, we must ask whether technology is the cause.  Only then will we understand the N-Generation. 

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All images used on these pages were either created by the group or are licensed Clipart.
This project was produced for Psy 380, Social Psychology of Cyberspace, Spring 1999,  at Miami University.

Social Psychology / Miami University (Ohio USA). Last revised: Tuesday, March 11, 2014 at 17:34:51.   This document has been accessed 1  times since 1 May 1999. Comments & Questions to R. Sherman