So-called Millennials are the target of plenty of negative stereotypes, but they're also usually credited with at least one advantage -- they may be entitled, lazy narcissists, the standard thinking goes, but at least they're really good at tech.

As digital natives who grew up with computers, those under 35 have a leg up when it comes to mastering new technology compared with the fusty, creaky oldsters who came before them, says this common understanding.

There's only one problem with this story. Just like most of the negative stereotypes Millennials have been saddled with, science suggests it's actually wrong.

"A Yeti with a smartphone"

According to a new editorial in Nature, the idea of the "digital native" is about as real as a "Yeti with a smartphone." The no-holds-barred piece draws on recent research published in Teaching and Teacher Education, as well as older reviews of the scientific literature on so-called digital natives, to review whether the recent mania for tech in education has solid scientific foundations.

The conclusion: This trend, like so much else in education, is based on fashion, not evidence. While teachers might insist that today's students somehow use tech differently, studies don't back this up. Just like older people, so-called digital natives are terrible at multitasking and mostly use tech to mindlessly absorb information.

Gadgets in classrooms might make kids happy, but sadly it doesn't seem to help them learn (a truth top technologists, if not teachers, seem to understand -- they tend to send their kids to low-tech schools).

"Children say they prefer IT in their lessons and courses? Do schools listen when kids say they prefer chips for lunch every day?" asks the editorial.

Meanwhile, outside of the classroom ...

This is all very fascinating if you're an education professional or a parent, but does this science have anything to say about how to handle Millennials in a professional context? The editorial itself is silent on the subject (though there is some evidence that digital natives aren't really so awesome at tech outside of school either). It's not hard to speculate how these truths might be applied in the world of work, however.

Plenty of experts and articles argue that young employees need to be unchained from old rules and procedures in order to unleash their digital native powers. Perhaps those arguments need a rethinking in light of the latest evidence. If you're using your Millennial employees as a convenient excuse to jettison over-controlling policies or outdated tech that annoy your entire staff, go ahead.

But if you're letting your youngest team members get away with the constant distractions of pinging devices and screens without comment because you think they're brains are somehow wired to handle it, then think again. And you probably don't need to do any special overhauls of your tech approach specifically on their behalf either (though they may want you to).

Despite the hype, science says that, when it comes to learning and tech at least, young employees are pretty much the same as everyone else. Treat them the same.

Published on: Aug 3, 2017