Talking about "The App Generation"

We know that young people today are “digital natives,” capable of using technology to do just about anything—but what influence does technology really have on young people’s identities and the way they see the world? Howard Gardner and Katie Davis, professors at Harvard University and The University of Washington respectively, explore that question in their book, “The App Generation: How Today’s Youth Navigate Identity, Intimacy, and Imagination in a Digital World,” which will be released on October 22. Through interviews with young people and focus groups with individuals who work with youth, the authors found that technology has mixed and complex influences on identity, intimacy and imagination.

We spoke with Gardner and Davis about what they’ve learned about this new generation and their thoughts about how schools can encourage students to use technology in a meaningful way. Author of 28 books, Gardner is the Hobbs Professor of Cognition and Education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education and serves as senior director of Harvard Project Zero, a groundbreaking educational research group. Katie Davis is an assistant professor at The University of Washington Information School, where she studies the role of digital media technologies in adolescents’ academic, social and moral lives.

Young people are searching for the “app”—whether it be digital or non-digital—that tells them just how to accomplish what they want to accomplish as quickly and efficiently as possible. If one app does not work, they look for another. And if they can’t find or invent one, they drop the topic or concern.

What do you mean by the term you’ve coined “the app generation”?

For many years, pundits have striven to discover the best possible characterization to the current generation of young people. The current generation is the first that defines itself by technology, rather than by pivotal political or economic events.

Our interviews with roughly 100 individuals (teachers, counselors, religious leaders, therapists) who have worked with young people for at least two decades, yielded a surprising recurrent theme. Young people today strike these veterans as risk-averse. Rather than wanting to explore, to try things out by themselves, young people are always pushing to find out exactly what is wanted, when it is wanted, how it will be evaluated, what comes next and where we end up.

Looking for a metaphor for this trait, we arrived at the characterization of an “app generation.” We use this term in two senses. First of all, whenever possible, young people are searching for the “app”—whether it be digital or non-digital—that tells them just how to accomplish what they want to accomplish as quickly and efficiently as possible. If one app does not work, they look for another. And if they can’t find or invent one, they drop the topic or concern.

The second sense is striking. Many young people, especially those in the middle class, see their lives as a series of locksteps—which we have termed a Super-App. First, high school, then college, then the right major, then the right summer internship, then the right job at the right institution—all the way to Big Success in one of the major metropolitan areas in the country. Of course, these Super-Apps are rarely achieved. All too often, the disillusioned young person is uncertain about how to regroup and how to proceed in another promising direction; especially if there is no App or Super-App pointing the way.

You talk about young people who are app-dependent, versus app-enabled. What’s the difference, and which mode is more prevalent?

The term “app-dependence” refers to the following. The individual follows the app rigorously, does exactly what is indicated, and when the options have been exhausted, moves on to the next app. The term “app-enabled” refers to a contrasting situation. In this case an app opens up new possibilities, engenders the exploration of unexpected moves and options, which could include terminating the app and proceeding in a novel direction.

Many young people have become app-dependent, probably many more than are app-enabled. But the difference does not lie simply in the young person himself or herself. Some apps—for example, ones that provide provocative suggestions about how to create works of art—move one toward enablement. Other apps—for example, ones that tightly structure and limit a drawing, story or song—move one toward dependence.

Teachers, parents and other influential role models are also relevant. A respected or powerful person who is dependent on the app-of-the-moment exerts a quite different influence than a respected or powerful person who can “take or leave” the app, create new apps or criticize the existing apps as being too directive. App-dependent adults nurture app-dependent young people.

What are the benefits and drawbacks of new technologies with regard to young people and their emerging identities?

With the emergence of status updates, selfies and profile “likes,” we see a movement away from the internal life towards an externalized, packaged self that is laced with narcissistic traits. When offline experiences are staged for posting on Facebook, when tweets are composed so as to elicit the maximum number of retweets, the self becomes increasingly performative and oriented outward. There is little time or inclination to focus on an inner sense of meaning and purpose, on personal conflicts and struggles, on quiet reflection and personal planning. As the young person approaches maturity, this packaging discourages the taking of risks of any sort.

In the early days of the Internet, a sense of anonymity prevailed online. Media scholars described how online environments opened up opportunities for unprecedented identity experimentation. While alcoves of anonymity still exist online—a popular genre being the so-called atonement apps such as and Whisper—the most broadly popular sites like Facebook and Google encourage congruence between one’s online and offline identities. And, since disparate audiences tend to converge on these sites, it is increasingly difficult to keep one’s identities separate. This state of affairs encourages an identity consolidation that may be premature for adolescents who should still be exploring alternative life options.

On a more positive note, the Internet has certainly contributed to the broadening of acceptable identities open to today’s young people. It is far more acceptable for youth to wear proudly identities that were previously shunned—today, in many circles, it’s okay to be a geek, it’s okay to be gay. Whereas a pre-digital teen would likely have experienced ostracism from her peers for pursuing an obscure interest, today’s teen can easily connect online with a wide range of likeminded people. And, in the process of communing over shared interests, she will likely be exposed to people who may differ from her in other ways, whether culturally, religiously or generationally. In the happy case, this diversity of encounters further reinforces acceptance of difference.

What did you find out about technology and young people when it comes to relationships, i.e., intimacy?

Today’s young people seek traditional qualities in their relationships: trust, reciprocity and self-disclosure. What’s different is the way they look to Facebook, Twitter and Snapchat to facilitate these markers of intimacy. Technology has become integral to the way young people carry out their relationships. Texting allows them to connect with their friends on the fly, while Facebook lets them share what they’ve done with those who weren’t there. In many ways, technology supports a rich social life for youth.

But it’s not all positive. We’ve heard from young people that it can be isolating to watch their friends experience an endless stream of social activity through the pictures they post on Facebook. It can breed feelings of insecurity to see that they don’t have as many followers on Twitter, or that their Facebook profile picture hasn’t received as many “likes” as their more popular peers. We’ve also heard about the disjunction youth sometimes feel when they’ve spent an evening sharing very personal feelings with a friend online, only to arrive at school the next day and have neither one of them acknowledge their intimate conversation, or to have it shared inappropriately with third parties.

There’s no doubt that today’s technologies make it extremely easy to connect with others and to keep in touch with a wide variety of people from every corner of one’s life. When used to augment offline ties, we find that technology can support intimacy. However, there is concern that the effort youth put into maintaining their broad network of weaker social ties online may crowd out the sustained attention needed to nurture deeper relationships. In such cases, relationships become transactional instead of transformational. There’s also a danger of coming to rely on technology for one’s primary source of social connection. As Sherry Turkle has noted, when we pour our feelings onto a screen instead of a human being, we’re removing the vulnerability and risk that are a fundamental part of intimacy.

What did you find out about how young people are using technology for artistic expression? What are the benefits, and what are the downsides?

We explored changes in youth creativity over a twenty-year time span, analyzing over 350 pieces of visual art produced by high school students and nearly 100 fiction stories written by middle and high school students between 1990 and 2011. We were expecting to find that creativity in the visual and literary domains would either rise or fall together.

However, our analysis uncovered a surprisingly divergent pattern. We found that certain dimensions of creativity, such as originality, experimentation and complexity, have diminished in the literary domain while they’ve increased in the visual domain. The literary pieces written in recent years tended to be more mundane—there was less experimentation with genre, character types and setting. Whereas a story from the early 1990s might involve a character who metamorphosed into a butterfly, or a doctor who turned into a pinching crab, there was very little such deviation from reality in the more recent pieces.

In contrast, the pattern we detected in the visual art was one of increasing experimentation and sophistication. Contemporary artists were more likely to draw on the expansive selection of media at their disposal to create layered works that hold the eye longer with their increased complexity and unexpected composition.

Digital media technologies can support creativity by providing new tools with which to create new opportunities to share one’s work with a wide audience. However, the benefits may not be evenly distributed across domains. In the spirit of Marshall McLuhan, our research suggests that, in the aggregate, imagination with respect to one medium (graphic expression) is more likely to be enhanced than imagination with respect to another medium (literary expression).

You’ve encouraged people to venture beyond the prescribed uses of apps and/or technology—can you give an example of that? What advice would you give teachers about using technology in the classroom?

In no way do we want to ban technology—indeed, we are all the beneficiaries of the genius of Steve Jobs, Stephen Wozniak, Alan Kay and other founders and stewards of the technological revolution. But technology can exert a seduction that goes beyond reasonable limits. We do not want to have a population—young or old—that plays video games all day, or that proceeds mindlessly from one app to another, or that goes berserk when there is a digital breakdown or an enforced removal from the digital world.

If we are to achieve a world in which technology figures productively but individuals are not completely dependent on technology, three things need to happen.

First, adults (parents, teachers, other respected individuals) need themselves to model a moderate use of technology and to demonstrate the ability to put it aside and be comfortable in a technology-free environment.

Second, makers of apps and other digital platforms should build in options that allow enablement, rather than simply encouraging dependency; moreover, they should proudly announce and embrace this catalyst toward enhanced creativity.

Third and most important, young persons need to internalize the difference between dependence and enablement. Youths should themselves find ample opportunity to put apps ‘in their place’ rather than ‘all over the place.’

As we say in our book, it’s fine to use an app to get from the hotel to the aquarium (or from home to a friend’s house). But you should open your eyes along the way. You should explore the neighborhood around the aquarium, trying a few stores even if they have not been recommended. And, if you happen to lose your smart phone, you should be adventurous and figure out how to get back where you started or forward to where you wanted to go.

Focusing finally on the classroom, teachers should never start with the technology. They should start with a view of what kind of persons they would like their students to become and what kind of knowledge, skills, understandings, values they would like their students to acquire. To the extent that technology can aid in this task, hurray—two cheers for technology! But at the end of the day, we are human beings, not robots, and human values and aspirations need to remain dominant.

This article is commissioned by Amplify Education Inc. The views expressed are those of the author and sources interviewed, and do not represent those of Amplify Education, Inc.