THE BLOG

Are Smartphones Hurting Our Kids?

04/28/2014 04:02 pm ET | Updated Jun 28, 2014

Howard Gardner and Katie Davis, two Harvard educators, just published The App Generation: How Today's Youth Navigate Identity, Intimacy, and Imagination in a Digital World, which details the depressing inner lives of young people who have been raised on smartphones.

They coin the term "App Generation" to define young people who experience life primarily through the apps on their smartphones or tablets. Apps are terrific at solving problems, like how to find Aunt Millie's house or how to find someone to have coffee with. But because they solve problems without much involvement from the user's brain, they end up having a much more damaging effect on people, especially young people, than we might have guessed.

The authors write that App Generation kids are stunted in terms of their ability to define their own identities, express their creativity or interact meaningfully with others. Since they primarily experience life not just through a screen, but through a problem-solving device, they are not adept at defining or solving problems for themselves.

Kids may be good at developing what the authors call a "Super App" -- a somewhat rigid and uncreative life plan that will carry them from where they are now to supposed financial fortune and even bliss 10 years out. But on a day-to-day basis, their lives aren't so great.
Relationships among young people aren't exactly improving as a result of apps, the authors report. They suggest that young people have a greater acceptance of individuals with different lifestyles, sexual orientations, religions, or races.

The problem is that this greater level of acceptance comes along with a much more shallow understanding of what those differences really mean. Ignorance, not wisdom, lies at the heart of nonjudgmental thinking. It's a step in the right direction, but a much smaller step than people may realize.

Gardner and Davis report that creative written work by young people today is far less interesting than a generation ago, more derivative, more sloppily written, and more likely to include foul language.

Music and art fare no better in the app world. Apps certainly enable creativity, but they also thwart it, forcing users into pathways that the app designers have themselves created. In other words, young people today have the greatest communication and creativity tools ever devised, but the stuff they're creating stinks.

The ubiquitous use of communications technology also creates huge problems for young people. Facebook is actually depressing, the authors suggest, because everyone else is presenting such happy, fun existences, and individuals viewing all that reported happiness feel more miserable by comparison.

Walking the dog -- an actual dog, not a dog app -- was once a time for quiet reflection, but that's no longer the case. If you're walking your dog, you're probably texting or otherwise using your mobile device, meaning that independent thought is a distant memory.

Sex may be easier to come by for the App Generation, but it isn't necessarily a better deal. We've all heard of sexting, in which people photograph their naughty bits and send them to friends. There's an app called Snapchat which causes photos to dissolve after just a few seconds.

Some young people view this as an opportunity to sext without creating a permanent record. The problem is that other young people are taking photographs of the nude photos and then posting their photos of the Snapchat photos online. Are you following all this? Short answer: It's a mess.
The most striking thing in the book was the reality that if you wanted to communicate online with someone and offer eye contact, you had to look not into the other person's eyes but into your camera. As the authors wrote, "In other words, to create the illusion of eye contact, one must actively avoid it."

It gets worse. Boston College applications were down 26 percent after requiring a 400-word essay; apparently, the very idea of writing 400 words about why you wanted to attend Boston College dissuaded one quarter of applicants from even filing the paperwork.
Young people today are far more likely to say, "Did you see something?" versus "Did you hear something?" or "Did you read something?" In a visual culture, nobody seems to be reading very much.

On top of that, people end up with fewer real friends with whom to talk through important life issues because they spend so much time developing thin-sliced relationships online.
Put it all together and the youth that Gardner and Davis diagnose seem to be worse off for their ongoing encounter with technology instead of happier, smarter, or more satisfied.

I'd keep going, but I have to walk the dog.

And without my smartphone.

You can purchase Howard Gardner and Katie Davis's book at amazon by clicking here.