Posted in C21st Learners, Digital Citizenship, knowledge networks and digital innovation, Social Media, Teaching and Learning

Book Review: The App Generation

As part of the course work for a subject I am studying, The concepts and practices for the digital age, one of the assessment items was an academic book review.  I chose to review The App Generation by Howard Gardner and Katie Davis.

Gardner, H., & Davis, K. (2013). The app generation: How today’s youth navigate identity, intimacy, and imagination in a digital world. New Haven: Yale University Press.

book cover app generation

As educators we need to understand the students we teach –what motivates them, how they think about themselves, how they relate to others, how they learn and what societal factors impact their learning.  In a digital age, the impact of media and social technologies on youth is an essential topic for consideration.  An interesting dialogue exists among scholars of youth about how generational traits have been impacted by pervasive and ubiquitous technology.  The App Generation by Howard Gardner and Katie Davis (2013) adds another layer to this conversation. This review will provide an overview of the key themes discussed by Gardner and Davis, compare and contrast these to the findings of other scholars in this field and analyse the strengths and weaknesses of the book.  It will be argued that The App Generation by Gardner and Davis provides insights into the impact of digital and social media on the identities, relationships and creativity of today’s teens.  These insights are based on research and although there are limitations in the conclusions of this book, it is recommended for educators, as it provides an entry into the discourse about contemporary youth and the repercussions of a digital world for them socially and intellectually.

The App Generation is the result of work and conversations between the authors, Howard Gardner and Katie Davis, and fellow researchers and is written for the academic community, both teachers and students, with interests in the interconnected relationships of youth and digital media (2013).  Professionals working with young people in other fields such as psychology would also find this book of particular interest.  Using an orderly and logical structure, Gardner and Davis set out to prove that, courtesy of digital technologies, the identity, intimacy, and imaginations of contemporary youth have each been reconfigured significantly in recent decades (2013, p. 2). According to the authors, there are two clear arguments in the debate about how apps are impacting human experience and behaviours. The enthusiasts of the digital world believe that through technology we are enabled to participate, master skills and knowledge, create within various media and to inform ourselves and make judicious decisions. On the other side of the debate, it is claimed that new technologies encourage superficial thinking and limit reading and reflection; a belief that digital media narrows our horizons because it dictates that we interact with like-minded individuals. In this view, the world is one dependent on the restriction of each currently popular app. The authors state that their data speaks to these debates and leads to the conclusion that, “the emergence of an “app” culture allows individuals readily to enact superficial aspects of identity, intimacy and imagination. Whether we can go on to fulfil our full potential in these spheres, to take advantage of apps (“enabling”) without being programmed by them (“dependent”), remains a formidable challenge” (Gardner & Davies, 2013 p 34).  This overarching theme of the potential for apps to enable or limit youth is a motif that connects the authors’ arguments throughout the book.

The App Generation is an accessible text and enjoyable to read and this is achieved through a combination of narrative and analytical writing. This style is effective because it makes an academic case for the authors’ arguments that point to the research and document the findings and also makes the reading accessible by interspersing narrative and anecdotes throughout. The style of the book can be seen as one of its strengths because it opens this dialogue to a broader audience such as the parents of teens.

One of the suggestions that have been prevalent in the dialogue about youth in the digital age is the existence of generational traits and The App Generation adds another layer to this conversation.  Gardner and Davis’ work joins that of scholars such as Prensky who suggested that because “digital natives” have spent their entire lives surrounded by and using the tools of the digital age, they think and process information in a fundamentally different way to their predecessors and don’t have to translate or learn new technology, but merely experience it (Prensky, 2001, p. 1). This however was challenged by a number of people including Nasah, DaCosta, Kinsell & Seok who assert that “empirical findings show that students’ use of ICT is driven by factors such as age, socioeconomic status, living arrangements and locale and thus, their use of ICT may be more a matter of digital literacy and digital access than a generational trait” (2010, p. 532).  The new layer added by Gardner and Davis is their assertion that by “evoking the epithet the App Generation, [they] seek to go beyond the technology, and beyond the media of communication, into the psychology of the users.  … [and] capture the cognitive, social, emotional, and even ethical dimensions of what it is like to be a young person today (2013, p. 54). These layers in the conversation about the impact of ubiquitous technology on generational traits make for a complicated topic.

The impact of technology on the socialization of young people is another conversation among scholars discussed by Gardner and Davis.  Like Danah Boyd and Sherry Turkle, The App Generation investigates how our identities are changing due to the prevalence of technology in our lives.  On this topic, there are similarities between Gardner and Davis’ research and Boyd’s who makes the point that, “teens don’t see social media as a virtual space in which they must choose to be themselves or create an alternative ego.  They see social media as a place to gather with friends while balancing privacy and safety with humor and image” (2014, Crafting a profile, creating an identity performance, para. 7). A second connection with these authors lies in the investigation into how relationships have been affected by the unprecedented connectivity facilitated by new media technologies.  Turkle’s view that “insecure in our relationships and anxious about intimacy, we look to technology for ways to be in relationships and protect ourselves from them at the same time” (2011, Turning points, para. 11) is a concern also raised by Gardner and Davis.

The strength of The App Generation is the expertise of its authors and the research that supports the arguments throughout the book.  Gardner and Davis are well-credentialed academics and the findings of the book are based on five years of research by the authors and their team at Harvard.  The authors point out that whilst there is a vast amount of talk on the topic of digital media and it’s affects on today’s youth, the data to support this talk is significantly lacking.  By contrast, the conclusions Gardner and Davis reach are based on empirical methodology involving interviews conducted with young people between 2008 and 2010, discussions with seven focus groups of adults who work with young people (psychoanalysts, psychologists, mental health workers, camp directors, religious leaders, arts educators, classroom teachers and after-school educators) and a comparative study of the artistic productions (visual art and creative writing pieces) of young people over a twenty year period (2013, p. 11-12). One of the issues identified with this research is Gardner’s approach to assessing creativity.  On this issue, another argument is that  “individuals cannot necessarily be assessed as creative or uncreative, particularly when young” (Wickner, 2013, October 1, para 7).  Despite the criticism that this evidence is absurdly broad and proof is scant (Ehrenfreund, 2014, para. 3), the research presented is well documented with clear links to the arguments made throughout the book.  Further credibility is achieved through the authors’ interrogation of their research against other expert findings and opinions.

There are a number of limitations in The App Generation.  The first of these limitations are the authors’ definitions of an ‘app’ and a ‘generation’. These are important because they comprise the title of the book and the contexts set by Gardner and Davis, which are technological and generational.  The scope of the book is significantly limited in that it is American and based on a middle class socioeconomic.  In the conclusions, the authors themselves statethe, “portrait is based on, and applies primarily to middle-class and upper-middle-class youth living in an affluent, developed society” (2013, p. 161). This fact is not however made in the opening of the book when generation is contextualized as, “how young people of a certain time period act, how their elders define them and how events of their time have shaped the spaces they’ve grown up in” (2013, p.13). The transgression here is that the authors have not been explicit from the onset that the “certain time period” of their generation is also socially and economically exclusive.  Secondly, as one critic points out, “their broad definition of “app” as “a procedure, enabled by technology, that allows the user to carry out one or more operations” sits awkwardly with the subsequent use of “app” as a stand-in for diverse technologies, social media, and digital things throughout the rest of the book.” (Wickner, 2013, September 30, para. 6)  The contexts of the book are significantly tainted because the scope and definitions of app and generation are limited and as such a more in-depth discussion of each should have appeared earlier in the discourse of a book entitled The App Generation.

Problematic limitations also appear in some of the conclusions drawn by Gardner and Davis.  Significantly, they point out it can never be proved that the pervasiveness of technologies are the singular cause of changes in youth consciousness. They also state that it is limiting to discuss the cause of generational dispositions without considering the impact of other factors such as politics, the financial climate and epoch events (2013, p. 166). This lack of proof in the casual roles of generational traits particular to contemporary youth is problematic to the underlying hypothesis of the whole text.  Further limitations appear in the inconsistencies between some of the evidence provided and the conclusions drawn.  In particular, the third investigation made by the authors into the impact of technology on youth’s imagination or creativity lacks a clear link between the evidence and the conclusion drawn.  The authors’ outline how two well-recognised studies into this topic draw opposing conclusions, one that creativity among youth is decreasing and the other that it has shown improvements.  The authors’ research also revealed two differing conclusions yet in the concluding chapter of the book, Gardner and Davis state, “on a positive note, with respect to imagination and creativity, digital technologies afford enormous potential” (2013, p. 161) Finally, it is difficult to discern any clear link between the evidence presented throughout the book and the authors’ hypothesis that young people have come “come to think of the world as an ensemble of apps, to see their lives as a string of ordered apps, or perhaps, in many cases, a single, extended, cradle-to-grave app” (2013, p. 7).  The lack of support for a number of the concluding statements in the book diminishes the authors’ arguments.

For educators, a key takeaway from The App Generation is the recurring theme of fear of failure and aversion to risk among the youth of today.  Just as this was found in young people’s formation of identity and ability to develop relationships, it was also found to be true of their creative pursuits. A number of behaviours among youth have emerged that point to a need for constant reinforcement, validation and aversion to risk.  Some of the examples include; text messaging which takes away the discomfort of face-to-face conversations, information apps that take away the risk of getting the wrong answer & location apps that take away the risk of getting lost. It is suggested that one of the reasons for this increased fragility may be because failure, “once might have been witnessed by a few peers and then forgotten but today might become part of one’s permanent digital footprint.” (2013, p. 77) Consequently, the authors argue that education in the era of apps must, “provide nudges in the direction of flexible use of apps; to offer initial scaffolds in the form or use of apps but then to remove these as soon as feasible; and to sanction the implementation of spaces and of times in which one puts aside the devices and the apps and fends for oneself.” (2013, p. 185)

The App Generation by Gardner and Davis contributes some key issues to the dialogue about how technologies shape the people of a particular time and place.  In particular, the authors question, “in which ways have “young people’s thought processes, personalities, imaginations, and behaviors [been] affected and perhaps radically transformed by their involvement with these media” (2013, p. 9)?  Despite some weaknesses in linking evidence to the conclusions drawn, this book is well researched, easy to access and a valuable resource for conversation and debate in current educational practice.


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Gardner, H., & Davis, K. (2013). The app generation: How today’s youth navigate identity, intimacy, and imagination in a digital world. New Haven: Yale University Press.

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Turkle, S. (2011). Alone together: Why we expect more from technology and less from each other [Kindle]. New York: Basic Books.

Wickner, A. (2013, October 1). The App Generation: New book about kids these days [Web log post]. Retrieved April 14, 2014, from

Wickner, A. (2013, September 30). The App Generation: New book about kids these days [Web log post]. Retrieved April 14, 2014, from




As the Curriculum Leader of the Mt Alvernia iCentre, my key areas of interest are: Teaching and Learning The information landscape Digital Literacy Digital citizenship Literature Reading

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