Publications & Products
Odds and Ends: Generational App-titudes
Odds and Ends: Generational App-titudes

Author Katie Davis on how apps change young people’s minds—for better or worse

Rick Tulka

What keeps Katie Davis up at night? Smartphones. But not in the same way that yours often does. Davis, an assistant professor at the University of Washington's Information School and co-author of The App Generation: How Today's Youth Navigate Identity, Intimacy, and Imagination in a Digital World, studies the role of digital media and technology in teenagers' academic, social, and moral lives. In the October 2013 book she wrote with renowned Harvard University researcher and psychologist Howard Gardner, the authors explore how this rising teen generation differs from those that grew up in a predigital era, looking particularly at how the apps that young people use can expand or, unknowingly, limit their thinking, creativity, and experiences.

How can parents and educators discourage app dependence and encourage young people to be app-enabled?

First, they can model app-enabled behavior, using technology in moderation and as a springboard for new experiences, relationships, and creative expression. They can also model putting it aside and being comfortable in a technology-free environment. Second, it's important to provide opportunities for young people to gain the skills to create their own apps and not be hemmed in by the constraints built into existing apps. In the classroom, teachers should start with what kind of people they would like their students to become and the knowledge, skills, understandings, and values they would like their students to acquire. If new media technologies can support these goals, then so much the better. But we are human beings, not robots, and human values and aspirations need to remain dominant.

Has the time come to recalibrate how we define generations?

More recently, generations have been defined in terms of the zeitgeist and pivotal events of their time—the Greatest Generation, the Silent Generation, the Beat Generation—leading to the perhaps deliberately nonrevealing appellations generations X, Y, and Z. Rather than citing momentous events such as war, economic crisis, or presidential assassination, young people today speak of their generation in technological terms. In light of the rapid pace of technological change, it seems likely that generations defined in such terms will become shorter and shorter.

What's your advice for engaging these young people?

Members of the App Generation share similar concerns and motivations as earlier generations—they're trying to figure out who they are, what they care about, and what contributions they want to make to society. Connect with them on a personal level and help them feel like they are part of something meaningful and larger than themselves.

What do you think about the view of the near future presented by the Oscar-winning movie Her, in which a man falls in love with his smartphone's operating system?

A scene that sticks with me happens at the start of the movie, when the camera pans out from the protagonist Theodore Twombly sitting at his work cubicle at We overhear other workers dictating surrogate letters on behalf of grandchildren, friends, and spouses. It reminds me of the quote by philosopher Alfred North Whitehead that starts the last chapter of our book: "Civilization advances by extending the number of important operations which we can perform without thinking of them." On the face of it, such automation sounds great. But the question that Her forces us to ask is, how much of ourselves and our relationships are we willing to outsource? At what point do we start to cede our human agency?

—Interview by Theresa Walker




Add a Comment

You must be logged in to comment . Your name and institution will show with your comment.