Young People Let Digital Apps Dictate Their Identities, Say 2 Scholars

October 28, 2013

Young People Let Digital Apps Dictate Their Identities, Say 2 Scholars of the Technology 1

Yale U. Press

Katie Davis, co-author of “The App Generation,” studies the role of technology in adolescents’ lives.

By Marc Parry

In the 1950s and 60s, the psychoanalyst Erik Erikson wrote about how people are shaped by a series of crises that must be confronted during different phases of their lives. For adolescents, the crisis involves developing a sense of who they are and what sort of life they aspire to.

Back then, “it was seen as a positive development that people could explore different senses of identity before making a long-term commitment to a certain way of being,” says Howard Gardner, a Harvard psychologist who studied under Erikson as an undergraduate there in the mid-60s.

Later, as the Internet gained popularity in the 1990s, many speculated that digital technologies would open up new avenues for identity exploration.

Now the opposite is happening, Mr. Gardner says. Social media and digital apps may be pushing young people to prematurely cement their identities, his new research shows, which isn’t good for them and may not make sense to those around them.

“Kids feel pushed into developing a public identity early, and since it has been widely posted and effectively branded, it is actually difficult to explore other forms of identity,” says Mr. Gardner, a professor of cognition and education in the Harvard Graduate School of Education, who explores these issues in a new book, The App Generation (Yale University Press).

“The pressure is to consolidate and to post and to have as many friends and likes as possible,” he says, “not to experiment and to learn from one’s more or less successful attempts.”

Mr. Gardner is best known for developing the theory of multiple intelligences, which is laid out in his 1983 book Frames of Mind. He argued that people have eight or more intelligences, among them “spatial” and “interpersonal,” but that modern schools value only two of the intelligences, those he termed “linguistic” and “logical mathematical.” The theory, much debated among scholars, has exerted a large influence in schools.

The App Generation, written with Katie Davis, a digital-media scholar at the University of Washington, puts forward a new framework for thinking about young people’s changing experience of intimacy, identity, and creativity. The change that cuts across all those areas is a heightened “risk aversion” among modern kids, who, as Mr. Gardner puts it, tend to “see their whole life as a series of apps.”

“In an app, you take one option, and right away the next one comes up,” he says in an interview. “Similarly, in thinking about the choices you make in your own life, there’s a feeling that you have to go down a certain path if you want to be successful, famous, productive, whatever.”

He adds, “This fits very much into risk aversion. Because, my goodness, if you didn’t have the right internship, or you didn’t go to the right college, or you didn’t say the right thing in your essay, and you somehow deviated from that path, you might never be able to get back on again.”

3 Vantage Points

To show how the lives of today’s young people differ from those of their predigital predecessors, The App Generation marshals a variety of original data: interviews with teachers and students; focus groups with professionals who work with young people, such as mental-health professionals, camp managers, and religious leaders; surveys of more than 2,000 high schoolers; and studies of kids’ imaginative output—creative writing and visual art—over time. The people who are studied, ranging in age from 10 to 25, were primarily middle- and upper-middle class.

Spliced through the book are the cross-generational personal experiences of Mr. Gardner, 70; Ms. Davis, 34; and Ms. Davis’s sister Molly, 17. One example: keeping in touch with parents while away at college. When Mr. Gardner was an undergraduate at Harvard, “the notion that you would be in regular touch just made no sense at all—and most of us didn’t want to be,” he says. “It wasn’t because we were strange. [It was] because this was a time to explore.”

In Molly’s generation, however, research has demonstrated that college students communicate with their parents an average of 13.4 times a week.

In the realm of intimacy, the authors discuss how kids now avoid risk in relationships by communicating through technology rather than face to face. Screens remove the messiness and vulnerability from relationships and make it far less scary to communicate personal feelings, Ms. Davis says. Couples even break up online.

“It’s concerning, because part of the way we develop intimacy is by being vulnerable with each other,” says Ms. Davis, an assistant professor at Washington’s Information School, where her research focuses on the role of technology in adolescents’ lives.

“And part of the way we develop empathy is by looking at each other’s eyes and putting ourselves in other people’s shoes. Which is harder to do when you can’t see them and when you can’t see their reactions.”

While social media like Facebook and Twitter are touted for connecting people, the young people studied by Ms. Davis and Mr. Gardner revealed how such platforms often feed isolation. That comes from the mismatch between the kids’ own internal feelings and the carefully manicured, fun-packed profiles of their peers.

National data, too, point to growing social isolation. The App Generationdescribes one long-term survey in which respondents were asked a question about the people with whom they had discussed “important matters” over the previous six months. In 1985, Americans reported an average of 2.94 discussion partners. That number had fallen to 2.08 by 2004, “a shrinkage of one-third in the ambit of one’s discussion circle.”

Creative Complications

When it comes to changes in creativity, national studies report inconsistent findings. And The App Generation only complicates things further.

The authors analyzed visual art and short stories that middle- and high-school students created between 1990 and 2011. By studying the art published in Teen Ink, a national magazine, they found evidence for “a growing sophistication” in the images produced over the two-decade period.

Not so for creative writing. When judged by changes in things like genre, plot, and setting, teens’ writing was found to have grown more conventional over time. For example, the authors found a decline in what they call “genre play,” meaning tales that deviated from a standard “realist perspective” by incorporating absurdist themes or fantasy elements. In the 1990s, 64 percent of the stories featured genre play. Among later stories, however, 72 percent showed “no sign of genre play at all.”

The App Generation details the upside of technology, too, not just its drawbacks. Used well, the authors write, apps can expose kids to options that help them approach identity formation more thoughtfully. Mr. Gardner and Ms. Davis point to Molly’s experiences blogging about boarding-school life and pursuing her pop-culture interests on Twitter and Tumblr.

“These diverse online venues let Molly express and explore different sides of herself and, through that exploration, contemplate who she might become in the future,” the authors write.

Apps can also foster deeper relationships. Online communities can support self-disclosure and a feeling of belonging, both important for developing intimacy, the authors write. And those communities can also be especially helpful for kids who experience ostracism in their offline lives.

The App Generation sees technology opening up new avenues of creativity as well. Two promising developments are Figment, a social network for young-adult fiction, co-founded by a former managing editor of The New Yorker, and deviantART, a similar site devoted to visual art.

The challenge, as Mr. Gardner and Ms. Davis see it, is to become enabled by apps—using them as springboards to new experiences—rather than dependent on them (for example, just following the GPS and never looking outside).

Take one of their final examples, the case of Tod Machover, known as “America’s most wired composer.” His groundbreaking A Toronto Symphony was a “massively collaborative composition” that allowed ordinary citizens of Toronto to help create a significant symphonic work.

The App Generation describes how, in one section of the musical piece, residents could record and submit sounds they felt were “expressive of the city.” In other parts, they could shape melodies by manipulating apps created by the composer and his team.

Mr. Gardner sees that technology as an enabler that might spur folks to play around with a piano or xylophone.

“If you’ve never composed before, it’s a wonderful way of throwing yourself into the water,” he says. “But if that’s all you ever do, that’s dependence, it’s not enablement.”