The App Generation: How Today’s Youth Navigate Identity, Intimacy, and Imagination in a Digital World by famed Harvard psychologist Howard Gardner and digital media expert Katie Davis has just been released by Yale University Press. (October 22, 2013) It explores the power of apps to shape our young people from Gen Z, for better and for worse (such as stunting or spurring creativity and limiting or encouraging personal connections).
“Thirty years ago, Howard Gardner’s groundbreaking theory of multiple intelligences transformed practices in both education and parenting. The App Generation promises to have a similar impact, providing valuable new evidence illuminating technology’s impact on youth, as well as concrete guidance for protecting and nourishing young minds in this hitherto uncharted territory.”
This is no doubt important and relevant in the parenting world right now so I am pleased to announce that I have been given permission to reprint an excerpt from The App Generation.
The App Generation: How Today’s Youth Navigate Identity, Intimacy, and Imagination in a Digital World
Three Generations, Three Topics
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.
How Digital Technologies Affect Identity, Intimacy, and Imagination
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.
The above is an excerpt from the book The App Generation: How Today’s Youth Navigate Identity, Intimacy, and Imagination in a Digital World by Howard Gardner and Katie Davis. The above excerpt is a digitally scanned reproduction of text from print. Although this excerpt has been proofread, occasional errors may appear due to the scanning process. Please refer to the finished book for accuracy.
© 2013 Howard Gardner and Katie Davis, Authors of The App Generation: How Today’s Youth Navigate Identity, Intimacy, and Imagination in a Digital World
Howard Gardner, co-author of The App Generation: How Today’s Youth Navigate Identity, Intimacy, and Imagination in a Digital World, 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 is renowned as father of the theory of multiple intelligences. He lives in Cambridge, MA. For more information on Howard please visit htttp://howardgardner.
Katie Davis, co-author of The App Generation: How Today’s Youth Navigate Identity, Intimacy, and Imagination in a Digital World, is assistant professor, University of Washington Information School, where she studies the role of digital media technologies in adolescents’ lives. She is a former member of the Project Zero team. She lives in Seattle, WA. For more information on Katie please visit http://
For more information about the book, please visit http://www.theappgenerationbook.com