Millennials are the target of many criticisms in popular media, and even an areas which seems should be intuitive for the younger generation–their digital skills–receive more judgment than praise. Michael Lambert, the headmaster of Dubai College, has harsh words for millennials (a term which in this situation he uses interchangeably with digital natives) in the workplace. He says that rather than digital skills being considered an asset, millennials need to understand that they are a ‘global liability’. His assertion is that millennials are not coming out of school and into the workplace with the ‘right’ tech skills, and that they need to further their digital education if they ever intend to go far in the business world. His perspective is important to consider how millennials are viewed in a global sense, and not only in the US. His opinions are mainly based on a report,  America’s Skills Challenge: Millennials and the Future, supposedly assessing how young Americans fare in a variety of skills, based on their tests. One area of study that is particularly relevant is Problem-Solving in Technology-Rich environments–seems fitting for our target demographic. They claim that millennials surprisingly score low on their tests, and therefore that their technology skills are not quite as high as they may think; but a look at their ‘sample items’ may shed some light on this discrepancy.  The report offers a link to some sample questions that are given to assess the problem-solving skills of a young American person.

At first glance, as a digital native myself, the first thing that sticks out about this sample question is that it appears the website that the user is being asked to navigate is about 10 years old, as seen in the screenshot below. A quick look into the HTML of the page indicates that this sample question was edited only a few months ago, in June of 2016. This old website example used was not an oversight or an old question, but a reflection of their current question, using a 10-year-old site as a gauge to evaluate current technological skills.

Is navigating this page an accurate measure of current technological skills?

How accurate, then, can a study of the skills of digital natives be if they are being asked to navigate an archaic site that many may have never seen? This cannot be taken as a fair assessment and even a harsh criticism of technology skills, if the technology being used to assess such skills  was no longer in common use before some of those being studied would have even encountered it. A young child of 2 years could be asked to call grandma on a iPhone with little trouble; handed a rotary phone, however, that child would almost certainly fail. Would this mean that the child is unable to complete the task, and that her technological skills are severely lacking when compared to the skills of the previous generation? The skills would not be comparable: while the 2-year-old may be able to successfully complete a call on only the familiar device, this makes her skills different—not lesser.


In contrast to the view that digital natives are lacking in their technological skills and becoming less employable than previous generations, we see organizations which require ongoing digital skills. Often, expertise that can only come from those who already possess a familiarity with the modes of communication and outreach commonly found online is required, along with an innovative spirit common among young people raised in an ever-changing world.

One example of this innovative spirit that directly impacts the mental health field is the call for an app to help locate the heroin-overdose treatment commonly known as Narcan, issued late last year by the FDA. The call was answered—by 150 applicants, each of whom submitted their proposal for an app that would allow a user to quickly locate someone with the life-saving drug in the event of an emergency. The winner was announced in this past week: a company called PwrdBy, made up of young adults with a focus on social impact technology.

This use of technological skills for social impact is not limited to app developers. With increasing communication occurring behind a screen, several mental health organizations have taken to the web and apps to offer services to those who might otherwise never receive treatment. Sites like TalkSpace, BreakThrough and BetterHelp connect users to therapists, whom they communicate with entirely online, never meeting in person.

One company saw a need for online therapy to be accessible to teens; and SnapCounsellors was born in India, focusing on helping teens who might be in abusive relationships. Through this program, users talk to a therapist through Snapchat, in an environment which which works, according to Nida Sheriff, an information specialist at Chayn India.

“Teenagers just feel so safe on Snapchat that they are able to open up to the counselor. It isn’t just about the secrecy features of Snapchat, but its cultural implications. Snapchat is ‘cool’ right now, and kids trust it.” -Nida Sheriff

Using this form of social media as its platform, SnapCounsellors is able to reach a demographic of teens who would likely otherwise never receive advice in a formal setting. Reaching out to those teens where they virtually ‘hang out’ allows qualified professionals to identify and assist with potential problems, without being a threat to the teenagers.

Snapchat with your therapist? Why not?

These examples seem to oppose the ‘findings’ of the America’s Skill Challenge: how can young people score lower on problem-solving in technological environments, and yet when actually placed in a technological environment with a problem, innovate solutions which not only use technology, create job opportunities and make money, but also focus on the social impact that such a solution would have?

Perhaps millennials, as digital natives, are no longer responding to only the technological needs of businesses. They are responded to needs of the world that are not yet measurable by conventional tests. The ‘typing speeds’ which signaled the capabilities of the generation preceding them have vanished; replaced instead with a creativity which allows them to not simply process and consume digital media, but to comprehend challenges and innovate solutions to some of those challenges, in a way that is not lesser than than that of their predecessors—but certainly in a way that is different, and a way that is not yet measurable.

One thought on “Digital Natives & Technological Skills: Overrated or Innovators?”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

%d bloggers like this: