How do digital youth of the "app generation" learn, communicate, and express themselves

I recently had the opportunity to speak with Katie Davis, an assistant professor from the University of Washington Information School to discuss her role and a book she co-authored called, The App Generation: How Today’s Youth Navigate Identity, Intimacy, and Imagination in a Digital World.

The University of Washington is the first to have an Information or iSchool focused on youth and technology. Tell us about the school and your students’ focus of study.

Our digital youth faculty teaches a range of courses and provides research experiences for undergraduate, masters, and PhD students. We aim to prepare world-class digital youth researchers, practitioners who work directly with young people, and innovators who design and create digital tools and services for youth. One of the courses I teach, called Youth Development and Information Behavior in a Digital Age, explores new research on the impact of digital media tools and practices on youth development, including academic development.

How did you become interested in writing about kids’ use of technology and, in particular, apps?

My interest began over 10 years ago, when I was a fourth grade teacher. At that time, technology was becoming increasingly central to young people’s lives, both inside and outside of school. As a teacher, it was clear to me that this trend was only going to get bigger. I started to think about the many implications involved with respect to how young people learn, communicate with other people, and express themselves.

I was fortunate that when I came to Harvard as a doctoral student, my advisor and now co-author, Howard Gardner, was starting to ask similar questions. During the course of our research, we came to an important realization: whereas earlier generations have typically been defined by political or economic events (think of the World Wars, the Great Depression, and the Civil Rights Movement), this generation of young people is defined—and, importantly, defines itself—more by the technologies they use. Apps weren’t part of the cultural zeitgeist when we started our research, but as the iPhone was introduced in 2007 and the slogan “there’s an app for that” became a common saying, we realized that apps served as a fitting metaphor for what we were observing in our research. In our book The App Generation, we alternate between referring to apps metaphorically, to illuminate particular themes in our findings, and literally, to explore how teens use various apps like Snapchat, Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter.

What are the benefits of our app-driven lifestyle, and what might be some of the drawbacks?

In the book, we introduce the idea of an app mentality that many of today’s youth seem to exhibit. The app mentality suggests that whatever human beings might desire should be provided by apps. If the app doesn’t exist, it should be devised by someone right away. If no app can be imagined or created, then maybe the desire simply doesn’t or shouldn’t matter.

We see both positive and negative variations on the app mentality. A world permeated by apps is in many ways a terrific one. Apps are great if they take care of ordinary things and free us up to explore new paths and form deeper relationships. They are great also as they increasingly become tools for productive work, offer us ways to stay connected to our friends and family, and even provide us with avenues for new experiences. When apps are used in this way, they are app-enabling.

But there’s a less optimistic view of apps. There’s a danger that we become overly dependent on apps for the answers, for social connection, for our sense of ourselves. There’s a danger that we look to apps before we look inside ourselves. If this happens—if we start to see more of our apps than ourselves in our experiences, actions, self-expressions—it’s our argument that we have become app-dependent.

How can technology foster and enhance our creativity?  By the same token, does your research indicate that technology can dampen our artistic abilities? 

Digital media can open up new avenues for youth to express themselves creatively. Yet, it’s important to consider the fact that app developers constrain artistic expressions in specific ways. For instance, if you’re using a painting app, your color palette is limited to the hues that the designer programmed into the app. In a music composition app, your tonal range is similarly limited. Of course, sophisticated users can create their own workarounds and break free from the constraints of the underlying code. But realistically, most people will work within the parameters of the original app, and that raises important questions about how such boundaries affect the creative process.

We explored changes in youth creativity over a 20-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. Though we were expecting to find that creativity in the visual and literary domains would either rise or fall together, 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, 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.

We’ve considered these findings in terms of the role of digital media, though we can only offer our best hypotheses rather than draw a direct connection between technology and changes in youth’s artistic productions. With respect to the visual art findings, we note that digital media provide a wider, easier, and cheaper array of tools for youth to express themselves creatively. In addition, the Internet has expanded access to sources of inspiration as well as opportunities to receive feedback and recognition for one’s artistic productions.

With respect to writing, it’s hard to tell if kids are writing less, but the type of writing they do online is often quick, fleeting, and very much tied to the everyday and mundane. These characteristics mirror the patterns we saw in our analysis of youth’s creative writing. It’s also worth noting, for writing at least, the likely influence of our education system’s increasing focus on standardized testing over the last 20 years. Such a focus rewards writing the perfect five-paragraph essay rather than taking risks in one’s writing.

What surprised you when you started researching and writing your book?

My biggest surprise has been hearing teens express real ambivalence toward digital media and its role in their lives. When I talk with teens, I typically ask them to imagine what it would be like to go through a day (then a week, a month, and longer) without their phones, apps, or social media. The initial reaction is fairly standard: what an unpleasant, hard-to-imagine scenario! They’d be disconnected from their networks of friends and followers on Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter; they’d be unable to conduct research for school; and they’d be deprived of the many sources of entertainment they enjoy online and through apps. After going through the list of what they wouldn’t have or be able to do, many teens start to consider what they might gain: uninterrupted, lengthier face-to-face conversations; more time for personal reflection; fewer distractions when doing homework.

This ambivalence toward technology tells me that youth recognize many of the same opportunities and challenges around their digital media use as adults. I think this recognition is a great entry point for family members, teachers, and others who work with and support youth to engage them in conversations about the positive and negative aspects of technology, and through these conversations help one another to use digital media in an app-enabled way.

What can parents, teachers, coaches, and others do to help raise responsible, tech-savvy consumers?

A good place to start is with our own technology use. We should remember that adults are powerful models for youth. They see us tied to our laptops, smartphones, and tablets, and they’re taking note! We have the opportunity to model moderation in technology use, show kids there’s a time to put these devices away and be fully present.

Adults can also provide app-enabled experiences that emphasize open-ended exploration and personal initiative over more structured, top-down, and constrained activities. We’ve sampled a variety of apps—many of them with an educational bent—during the course of researching and writing The App Generation. Apps like Minecraft, Scratch, and Digicubes seem (unfortunately) to be among the minority that encourage open-ended exploration and creation. Others we’ve sampled are packed with a lot of bells and whistles that have little relation to the purported learning objectives and leave little room for users to exercise their own creativity and initiative.

Finally, we think computational skills should be emphasized to a greater degree in K–12 education so that kids are able to modify apps as they wish, even create their own. This is something that the UW iSchool does very well in its Informatics and Master of Science in Information Management programs. The ability to understand how apps and other technologies work constitutes a new—and critical—literacy for this new digital era.

Should industry be thinking how to design responsible products, services and apps that foster being a good digital citizen?

Yes, I think designers have a responsibility to consider how their apps are likely to be used, for good and bad. Of course, it’s impossible to anticipate all the different ways one’s creation might be used or modified.

My iSchool colleague, Professor Batya Friedman, has pioneered an approach to designing technologies and tools that take into account what humans care about. Called value-sensitive design, this approach seeks to account for the values of both direct and indirect stakeholders in a principled and systematic manner throughout the design process. A value-sensitive design approach encompasses more than digital citizenship. Designers could use such an approach to think about app-enablement vs. app-dependence during the design process, and attempt to design so that users are encouraged to use apps in an open-ended way, as non-constrained as possible.

About the Author
Kim Sanchez

Director, Trustworthy Computing

Kim is a director for online safety and accessibility in Microsoft's Trustworthy Computing Group. She is responsible for delivering strategic communications to worldwide audiences including consumers, government leaders, and other influencers on issues related to family and online safety and Read more »