I recently saw my 17-year old cousin for the first time in two years. The interactions that we had that weekend were perplexing. Emma and I are Facebook friends and we occasionally chat online, but it had been a long time since we had seen each other in person. Although she stood comfortably close to me in the kitchen the first morning, she had her eyes on her smartphone the whole time. She wasn’t avoiding me or being antisocial – instead she was finding funny off-color jokes or pictures online, laughing out loud, and then sharing them with me. In my foggy caffeine-deprived state, it took me awhile to realize that this was Emma’s way of connecting. We share a similar sick sense of humor, and I appreciated the jokes, but there was something a bit odd about our interaction: it could have just as easily occurred online. There was no eye contact or even conversation, just what we psychologists call "joint attention," which is when two people focus on the same object together. Joint attention is an important social and relational skill. It emerges within the first year of life and is impaired in individuals with social deficits, such as autism. But it is just a foundation for more intimate social contact – that which connects us directly to each other (rather than indirectly via an object).
That same weekend, I happened to be reading The App Generation (Yale University Press, October 2013), which gives an overview of how digital media and technology may affect young people’s perceptions of themselves, their ability to relate to others, and their creativity. As the director of the Interdisciplinary Program on Empathy and Altruism Research (iPEAR), my research finds that there have been generational changes in personality traits related to social functioning. For example, we find that narcissism has been rising while dispositional empathy has been declining in recent generations. I also study the relationship between such traits and the use of social media. Considering this, I was excited to get a copy of the book ahead of its release date.
The book does a good job of outlining the latest research on the topic of how digital technology and media have changed fundamental aspects of the way young people relate to themselves and others. Considering that the authors are academics, I commend them for adopting an everyday conversational style, although at times this comes across as awkward. The book title is not quite right, since it’s really about the broader topic of how new technology and media affect us, unfortunately forcing the authors to squeeze in the app metaphor whenever possible to make the title work. The larger point of the book is that it is easy to become "app-dependent," allowing ourselves to be controlled and limited by technology, rather than "app-enabled," using it to reach our highest potential selves – to creativity connect and engage with ideas and other people. The historical examples from other times of technological change are amusing, and provide an interesting context for their discussion.
Howard and Katie (as they call themselves in the book) argue that the new media landscape indeed affects the way young people see themselves, or at least present themselves – what they call identity. In the early days of the internet, there was a feeling that one could go online and be someone else. With chat rooms and multiplayer role play games (and their customizable avatars), the internet allowed people to safely play with their identities and perhaps discover new aspects of themselves. Sherry Turkle, covered this topic quite early (1995) in her book, Life on the Screen: Identity in the age of the internet, and The App Generation gives her an appreciative nod. But the authors suggest that although this type of identity play still occurs, it is more common for young people to use social media to be "themselves, only better," considering that social networking sites often use people’s real names.
In terms of intimacy, Howard and Katie cite much research (including my own) finding that young people today may have more difficulty deeply connecting with others than those in past generations. The "odd" interaction between myself and Emma are apparently quite normal among teens and young adults, and the authors suggest that new media might be in part to blame for such changes in social interactions. Again, a book by Sherry Turkle (Alone Together: Why we expect more from technology and less from each other) has both preceded them and gone into more satisfying depth on the topic. The problem Howard and Katie acknowledge is that it is hard to conduct experimental studies, the gold standard for making causal claims. Yet I wish the authors would have discussed the vast amount of research on the effects of other media (e.g. television, violent video games), which has grappled with these problems for decades and has come up with some solutions.
The most novel and interesting part of the book, which alone makes it worth reading, is the chapter on creativity (which they self-consciously label imagination, in order to have three neat "Is" in the subtitle). This chapter is refreshingly different from the others, partly because the authors draw on their own research expertise here, rather than simply providing a cursory review of others’ work. But here again, the discussion is too brief and superficial, as if the book is intended to be read on a screen. Still, I was intrigued by their finding that while the visual art of young people seems to be increasing in creativity and complexity in recent years, their written work shows marked declines in the same domains. This reminded me of Leonard Shlain’s book, The Alphabet versus the Goddess, which posited that there would be a rise in the dominance visual images (which he sees as signifying feminine preeminence) over the written word (signifying masculine hierarchical systems of power).
Overall, The App Generation seems to be packaged directly to the "app generation," in its tendency to skim across facts rather than using them as a starting point for further analysis. But despite my criticisms, I still enjoyed reading it and it made me think more about how such technologies could be designed to help enhance social relationships rather than diminish them. My criticisms come partly from my experience studying this topic, and what seems like a criticism could actually be a strength for more novice readers. The book accurately gives an overview of scientific research on this topic, and with all of the electronic research tools available in recent years, it is up to the reader to "google it" if they want to go deeper.
Bio: Sara Konrath is an Assistant Professor at the University of Michigan. Email: skonrath.at.umich.dot.edu