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App Generation Explored at Askwith Forum

Is digital media – especially the use of apps among today’s youth – good or bad? The answer is not as black and white as you might think, according to Professor Howard Gardner and University of Washington Assistant Professor Katie Davis, Ed.M.’02, Ed.M.’09, Ed.D.’11.

Speaking at the Askwith Forum “The App Generation,” titled after their latest book, Gardner and Davis discussed how digital media and apps are changing young people’s personal identities, intimate relationships with other people, and imaginative powers.

Although today’s youth have become increasingly digitized, Gardner and Davis began questioning six years ago how this was affecting and possibly changing young people. “Increasingly, young people are not just immersed in apps but have come to see their lives as a string of apps and their world as an ensemble of apps,” Davis said. “In fact, you might see apps as one big string of apps where their lives are mapped out from one step to another…. We are talking about an app mentality in that all of our desires should be available through apps.”

It isn’t that apps are necessarily bad, they said. In fact, apps can often be useful, as in helping to find the nearest gas station or store. Yet, what Gardner and Davis find troubling is the growing dependence, particularly among young people, on apps.

“There’s a danger that young people are becoming increasingly dependent on the apps for interaction with other people, for views of how to express themselves. And when used in this way, if you look at apps before looking inside yourself, then you are app dependent,” Davis said, noting that dependence can create a tension.

To better understand this phenomenon, Gardner and Davis conducted 40 in-depth interviews with teachers, convened seven focus groups of educators and leaders, analyzed visual and literary works, and surveyed over 2,000 youth to gain insight into the question. The results paint an interesting picture about today’s youth and how they differ from previous generations. Adults reported that youth were more risk-adverse and expected quick answers, but that they were also more tolerant, accepting of others, and connected to family.

What Davis and Gardner see is a very polished and packaged identity among youth. Instead of taking time to figure themselves out as they are growing up, youth are spending time crafting or self-branding themselves online. All of this time spent creating what are essentially marketable identities, detracts from inner reflection and also puts increasing pressure on presenting a perfect, formed identity. “That goes against what adolescence is all about. Adolescents don’t have a fully formed, crystallized identity so there is this risk that they become locked into premature identity consolidation,” Davis said.

With apps and digital media, today’s youth can be connected with anyone anywhere at virtually anytime. However, this doesn’t mean they are really connecting with people. In fact, Davis and Gardner report the opposite in that many young people have a reluctance to be vulnerable and share personal feelings face-to-face. “When it comes to relationships, apps make it very quick, very easy, and much less risky to communicate with other people,” she says.  “Your relationships become much more transactional than transformational.”

Lastly, they looked at whether digital media and apps resulted in more or less creative youth. The results are somewhat mixed in that, although they appear to have more graphic imaginations, they are also less literary imaginative.

Although ultimately apps and digital media are not the enemy, Gardner reiterated that a world completely dependent on apps is not good. He encouraged everyone – especially young people -- to not allow apps to become “dictators” of our lives. Gardner and Davis advised that it starts with adults getting off their phones and modeling moderation to children, and encouraging a time to put technology aside.

“You want apps to free you rather than enslave you,” Gardner added.


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