The App Generation: How Today's Youth Navigate Identity, Intimacy, and Imagination in a Digital World

The App Generation: How Today's Youth Navigate Identity, Intimacy, and Imagination in a Digital World

by Howard Gardner, Katie Davis
Pub. Date:
Yale University Press
Pub. Date:
Yale University Press
The App Generation: How Today's Youth Navigate Identity, Intimacy, and Imagination in a Digital World

The App Generation: How Today's Youth Navigate Identity, Intimacy, and Imagination in a Digital World

by Howard Gardner, Katie Davis
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From the famed Harvard psychologist and an expert on the impact of digital media technologies, a riveting exploration of the power of apps to shape our young people—for better or for worse

No one has failed to notice that the current generation of youth is deeply—some would say totally—involved with digital media. Professors Howard Gardner and Katie Davis name today’s young people The App Generation, and in this spellbinding book they explore what it means to be “app-dependent” versus “app-enabled” and how life for this generation differs from life before the digital era.
Gardner and Davis are concerned with three vital areas of adolescent life: identity, intimacy, and imagination. Through innovative research, including interviews of young people, focus groups of those who work with them, and a unique comparison of youthful artistic productions before and after the digital revolution, the authors uncover the drawbacks of apps: they may foreclose a sense of identity, encourage superficial relations with others, and stunt creative imagination. On the other hand, the benefits of apps are equally striking: they can promote a strong sense of identity, allow deep relationships, and stimulate creativity. The challenge is to venture beyond the ways that apps are designed to be used, Gardner and Davis conclude, and they suggest how the power of apps can be a springboard to greater creativity and higher aspirations.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780300209341
Publisher: Yale University Press
Publication date: 09/30/2014
Pages: 272
Sales rank: 233,346
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.10(h) x 0.80(d)

About the Author

Howard Gardner is Hobbs Professor of Cognition and Education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education and senior director of Harvard Project Zero, an educational research group. He lives in Cambridge, MA. Katie Davis is assistant professor, University of Washington Information School, where she studies the role of digital media technologies in adolescents’ lives. She lives in Seattle, WA.

Read an Excerpt

The App Generation




Copyright © 2013 Howard Gardner and Katie Davis
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-300-19621-4




On a sunny though chilly day in March 2012, the two authors, Howard Gardner and Katie Davis, initiated a lengthy conversation with Katie's sister Molly. Ten years earlier, Katie, then in her early twenties, had begun to study with Howard, then in his late fifties. Since then they have collaborated on numerous research and writing projects, including this book. At the time of the conversation, held in Howard's office at Harvard, Molly, aged sixteen, was a junior at an independent school in New England.

Why did Howard and Katie hold and record this conversation? Since 2006, we and our fellow researchers have been examining the role technology plays in the lives of young people, often dubbed "digital natives" because they have grown up immersed in the hardware and software of the day. As researchers, we have used a variety of empirical methods to ferret out what might be the special—indeed, defining—quality of today's young people. But we came to realize that if we were to make statements, or draw conclusions, about what is special about digital youth today, we required key points of comparison.

Being opportunistic as well as empirical, we realized that our very own family configurations provided one comparative lens—as well as a literary device—through which to observe and chronicle the changes across the generations. Howard—on any definition of that slippery term, a "digital immigrant"—grew up in northeastern Pennsylvania in the 1950s, at a time when one could still count the number of computers in the world. Born in Canada and raised in Bermuda, Katie grew up in the late 1980s and early 1990s. During her early childhood, her Bermuda home had just one television station (CBS), which eventually expanded to three (CBS, ABC, NBC). In the mid-1990s, her parents finally installed cable at their home. Katie's access to computers was limited to once-weekly classes in the computer lab at school. In sharp contrast, Molly, who has lived in Bermuda and the United States, cannot remember a time without desktops, laptops, mobile phones, or the Internet. Wedded to her smartphone, this prototypical digital native spent her adolescence deeply immersed in Facebook, Twitter, and other social networking communities. And so our conversation across the generations—and subsequent communications among the three of us—catalyzed comparisons of three dramatically different relations to the technologies of the time.


Although our conversation ranged widely, three topics emerged as dominant and also permeate this book: our sense of personal identity, our intimate relationships to other persons, and how we exercise our creative and imaginative powers (hereafter, the three Is). To be sure, the nature of our species has not changed fundamentally over time. And yet we maintain that, courtesy of digital technologies, Identity, Intimacy, and Imagination have each been reconfigured significantly in recent decades. Signs of these changes can be discerned in our conversation.

As the dominant (though slightly waning) online community among both Molly's and Katie's peer groups, Facebook was a recurrent topic of discussion. Though they are Facebook friends, the sisters employ the popular social networking site in different ways. Having joined as an adult in her late twenties, Katie uses Facebook intermittently to stay connected to friends and family living across Canada, the United States, and Bermuda. For Molly, Facebook represents a far more integral part of her daily experience. Since she joined at the age of twelve, Facebook has represented a vital social context throughout her formative adolescent years.

In describing her use of and experiences on Facebook, Molly touched on a practice among some of her peers that made an immediate and striking impression on both Howard and Katie. As is the case at just about every high school, one group of students at Molly's school are considered the popular kids. The girls are attractive and the boys play varsity sports like lacrosse and soccer. Most of the varsity boys are seniors, but a few stand-out athletes are freshmen. A while back, Molly noticed that some of the senior girls who were dating senior boys started to show up on her Facebook newsfeed as being "married." Only they were married, not to their actual boyfriends, but to the freshmen boys who played on the same sports team (!).

"The popular senior girls pick out a freshman guy who is cute and popular and probably going to be really attractive when he's older. They'll kind of adopt him, and then take pictures with him, write on his wall, and flirt with him in a joking sort of way. The boys are kind of like their puppets."

Howard was surprised by this practice, noting that we typically think of girls in high school and college as being on the lookout for older men. "When I went to school, the junior and senior girls were all trying to go out with college guys."

Molly patiently explained that it's not about a real desire to date freshmen boys—after all, the girls are already dating senior boys. It's more of an initiation and reinforcement of social status. The freshmen boys are accepted into the social life of the sports team by way of the girls, who themselves use their "Facebook marriages" as further confirmation of their connection to the senior boys.

Why open with this anecdote? Because, in addition to representing an intriguing example of youth culture in a digital era, it touches on all three of the central themes in this book. With respect to personal identity, the Facebook marriage between freshman boy and senior girl is an act of public performance that forms part of a teen's carefully crafted online persona. Given its orientation toward an online audience, this external persona may have little connection to the teen's internal sense of self, with its associated values, beliefs, feelings, and aspirations. Yet paradoxically, if inadvertently, this electronic betrothal may contribute to an emerging sense of identity.

Issues of intimacy arise when we consider the new forms of social connection and interaction that have emerged with the rise of digital media. (It's hard to come up with an analog version of the Facebook marriage.) Though we identified positive aspects to these online connections in our research, the depth and authenticity of the relationships they support are sometimes questionable. Molly observed: "You never see [the senior girls and freshmen boys] hanging out as if they're good friends, like I can't see them going to each other with a problem or anything like that. But they're really good at putting on this kind of persona on Facebook of 'Everything is great and we're all friends and nothing is wrong here.'" Consider, too, that Molly, who rarely comes in contact with these teens in person, is nevertheless connected to them on Facebook.

Our final theme is imagination, and there's no doubt that the Facebook marriage represents an imaginative expression, if not leap. In our conversation Howard observed: "It's a bit like in mythology, the older queen picking the younger lad who has to perform for her." Of particular note is the fact that this specific act of expression is dependent on—indeed, probably inspired by—the relationship status options available on Facebook ("married," "single," "in a relationship," "it's complicated"). In this way, the Facebook marriage illustrates how digital media give rise to new forms of imaginative expression, just as the format of this application shapes and restricts these expressions in distinct and distinctive ways.


So much for our conversation and the themes and insights contained therein. We believe that one can find similar trends and manifestations across other areas that we might have surveyed—say, how one thinks about education or childrearing, religion or politics, work or play, personal morality or ethics at the workplace. (We consider some of these spheres at the end of the book.) The digital media leave few areas untouched—and their influences going forward promise to be equally dramatic and equally difficult to anticipate.

Yet we've become convinced that a single characterization best captures what is special about the changes digital media have wrought to this point. We capture this insight with the epithet the "App Generation." An "app" or "application" is a software program, often designed to run on a mobile device, that allows the user to carry out one or more operations. As captured in the photograph here, apps can be narrow or broad, simple or grand, and in either case are tightly controlled by the individual or organization that designed the app. Apps can access tunes or the New York Times, enable games or prayers, answer questions or raise new ones. Crucially, they are fast, on demand, just in time. You might think of them as shortcuts: they take you straight to what you're looking for, no need to perform a web search or, if determinedly old-fashioned, a search through your own memory.

It's our argument that young people growing up in our time are not only immersed in apps: they've come to think of the world as an ensemble of apps, to see their lives as a string of ordered apps, or perhaps, in many cases, a single, extended, cradle-to-grave app. (We've labeled this overarching app a "super-app.") Whatever human beings might want should be provided by apps; if the desired app doesn't yet exist, it should be devised right away by someone (perhaps the seeker); and if no app can be imagined or devised, then the desire (or fear or conundrum) simply does not (or at least should not) matter.

Let's consider a familiar task of life and how an ensemble of apps has increasingly taken over how we accomplish it: finding your way from point A to point B. A century ago, if one wished to make one's way from Harvard Square in Cambridge, Massachusetts, to Boston's North End, one had a few options. One could ask a friend or passerby for written or oral directions, rely on one's memory of a previous journey, or look at a map of the greater Boston area and plan one's path by foot or some other mode of transportation. At the extremes, there were other choices: one could embark on a random walk (risking the possibility of never getting there). Or, like the proverbial Charlie from the Kingston Trio's famous song who got stuck on the Boston subway system and "never returned," one could take the MBTA. Or one could ask an organization (in later years, the American Automobile Association) for a TripTik—a fool-proof, block-by-block itinerary.

While some readers will remember these times, to contemporary consciousness they seem hopelessly old-fashioned. In recent years, many of us have in our hands or in our vehicles a device that informs us of our precise position in space, directs us from that position to our desired location, and, if for any reason we deviate from the preferred route, adjusts its directions accordingly. For all practical purposes, such GPS systems are apps that remove uncertainty from our journey. Indeed, you might decide to use your smartphone as a navigation system by calling up Google Maps. Such apps not only give us extremely detailed maps of locations; drawing on our known and inferred preferences and the reviews of other users, they inform us about options every step of the way, such as nearby restaurants, cafés, or points of interest. We can say that these apps allow error-free navigation even as they seek to satisfy all of our possible needs and desires en route.

With respect to a life with foolproof navigational aids, after Howard delivered a talk on education to a college audience, a bright and somewhat aggressive student brandishing his smartphone approached Howard. Flashing a grin, he said, "In the future, why will we need school? After all, the answers to all questions are—or soon will be—contained in this smartphone." Howard reflected for a moment and then responded, "Yes, the answers to all questions ... except the important ones." A world permeated by apps can in many ways be a wondrous one; and yet, we must ask whether all of life is—or should be—simply a collection of apps or one great, overarching super-app.

Apps are great if they take care of ordinary stuff and thereby free us to explore new paths, form deeper relationships, ponder the biggest mysteries of life, forge a unique and meaningful identity. But if apps merely turn us into more skilled couch potatoes who do not think for ourselves, or pose new questions, or develop significant relationships, or fashion an appropriate, rounded, and continually evolving sense of self, then the apps simply line the road to serfdom, psychologically speaking. One can get from Harvard Square to the North End with one's eyes wide open or one's eyes shut tight. In what follows, we attempt to capture this contrast neologistically: apps that allow or encourage us to pursue new possibilities are app-enabling. In contrast, when we allow apps to restrict or determine our procedures, choices, and goals, we become app-dependent.

In informal terms, we've introduced the problematic of this book and hinted at the answers we detail in the pages that follow. But we are hardly the first to have attempted a description of the current generation of young persons, nor are we alone in seeking to link the profile of today's youth to the influence of digital media. Indeed, hardly a day goes by without some pundit singing the praises or lamenting the costs of a life dominated by digital devices. And hardly a fortnight goes by without a major essay or book on the topic. Before plunging into the details of our study, we owe the reader an explanation of what is special about our endeavor and the book it has spawned.

Although some of the current thinking and writing about digital youth is notable, the ratio of claims made to data gathered and analyzed systematically is embarrassingly, indeed unacceptably, high. We have attempted to redress this imbalance. Over the past five years, our research team at Harvard has carried out a number of convergent studies on the nature of today's youth. Using a variety of methods, we have sought to understand to what extent, and in which ways, the youth of today may differ from their predecessors.

To begin with, we've observed young people, talked with them, eavesdropped (with permission!) on conversations dedicated to bland topics like "today's youth" or stimulated by more provocative conversation-openers like "What do we owe to our parents and for what should we blame them?" Some of these conversations have been recorded, others reconstructed based on notes we've taken.

In formal work, guided by protocols, we've conducted systematic interviews with approximately 150 young people living in the New England area and a smaller sample in Bermuda. The New England interviews were conducted between 2008 and 2010 as part of a project examining the ethical dimensions of young people's digital media activities. For this project, we spoke with youth spanning middle schoolers up to recent college graduates about their experiences with digital media, including any "thorny" situations they'd encountered online. We also interviewed twenty girls who had been blogging throughout their middle and high school years in an online journaling community called LiveJournal. The remaining youth interviews were conducted in Bermuda with students ranging from the eighth through twelfth grades. In our interviews, we have secured much information about how young people think of digital media, how they make use of them, and what they see as the advantages and the limitations of the panoply of devices at their fingertips.

To supplement our studies with young people, we have carried out an ambitious, complementary program of research with knowledgeable adults. We constituted seven focus groups, each composed of six to ten adults who had worked with young people over at least a twenty-year period—spanning the predigital to the hyperdigital era. Each focus group assembled adults who had a particular form of contact with young people. Specifically, there were focus groups composed of psychoanalysts; psychologists and other mental health workers; camp directors and longtime counselors; religious leaders; arts educators; and classroom teachers and after-school educators who worked primarily with youth living in low-income neighborhoods. In addition, we carried out forty interviews, many extending over two hours, with high school teachers who had worked with young people over at least two decades. Each focus group and interview was recorded, documented, and analyzed.

Excerpted from The App Generation by HOWARD GARDNER, KATIE DAVIS. Copyright © 2013 Howard Gardner and Katie Davis. Excerpted by permission of Yale UNIVERSITY PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Preface ix

1 Introduction 1

2 Talk about Technology 15

3 Unpacking the Generations: From Biology to Culture to Technology 35

4 Personal Identity in the Age of the App 60

5 Apps and Intimate Relationships 92

6 Acts (and Apps) of Imagination among Today's Youth 120

7 Conclusion: Beyond the App Generation 155

Methodological Appendix 199

Notes 209

Index 231


A conversation with Howard Gardner and Katie Davis . . .

Q: Have digital media shifted the way we form and maintain personal relationships?

A:  Social media have made it incredibly easy to keep in touch with friends and acquaintances. But there is considerable concern that the effort we put into maintaining our weaker social ties may crowd out the sustained attention needed to nurture deeper relationships. Even so, our research suggests that most of today’s young people seek traditional qualities in their online relationships: empathy, trust, reciprocity, and self-disclosure.

Q: How can we help young people to use apps positively?

A: Parents and teachers can encourage imaginative exploration, beyond the letter of the app. But part of the burden also falls on those who devise apps. Too many educational apps are just digital versions of "drill-and-kill." We need apps that open up new possibilities and then allow the user to explore, imagine, expand, and, on occasion, toss aside the digital device and “go it alone.”

Q: How does an older person, a nondigital native, recognize the harmful uses of digital technology?

 A: We would be concerned if any young person spent too much time in the digital world, at the cost of face-to-face contact or time to relax, reflect, rest. And of course, one has to be on the lookout for frankly damaging behavior—bullying, invasion of another’s privacy, sexting, and so on. But by the time a child is 12 or 16, adults have difficulty knowing, let alone controlling, what the young person does. That is why both co-exploration when the child is young and learning enough so that you are not completely a digital immigrant are very important for adults of any generation.

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