How Today’s Youth Navigate Identity, Intimacy, and Imagination in a Digital World

By Howard Gardner and Katie Davis

Yale Univ. 244 pp. $25

We’d all like to absolve our children of their bad behavior by blaming it on some pernicious influence or other. As Howard Gardner and Katie Davis document in “The App Generation,” there is plenty to forgive. They examine data showing that children have become less empathetic and more socially isolated, less imaginative and more hesitant to take risks.

Yet the authors make a common mistake. Like many others, they assume that because kids spend so much time with their gadgets, these are crucially important to children’s psychology and can explain all of their behavior. At times our phones (and not just our kids’) may indeed seem to reflect our quirks and our weaknesses, but if they do, the most natural explanation is that our weaknesses have shaped the technology’s development, not the other way around.

Gardner and Davis fret that kids are obsessed with how their peers perceive them. But Facebook doesn’t force anyone into navel-gazing. The company responds to the demands of users. They’re the ones who’ve made social media what they are: strange places where everyone is loudly and cheerfully trying to persuade everyone else that they are who they claim to be, when they don’t entirely believe it themselves. Gardner and Davis never ask why these services are so popular or why they’ve developed the way they have. Instead, they attribute absolutely everything they dislike in young people to apps — even the decreasing number of young people with a driver’s license. The authors’ critique is absurdly broad, and the evidence that any of the problems of today’s youth are attributable to technology is scant.

‘The App Generation: How Today’s Youth Navigate Identity, Intimacy, and Imagination in a Digital World" by Howard Gardner and Katie Davis (Yale Univ.)

Technology can aid children’s development by providing new opportunities for experimentation, exploration and self-expression. Gardner and Davis are responsible scholars (at Harvard and the University of Washington, respectively), and they pay lip service to this argument, but the book’s alarmist tone suggests that they reached their conclusions in advance.

Gardner’s well-known theory that intelligence exists and develops in multiple forms was the work of a scholar deeply engaged with the complexities of children’s minds. Yet in this book, he and Davis seem unable to understand or sympathize with children at all. They write as though they think smartphones regularly prevent countless young people from living normal lives and becoming productive, happy members of society.

Max Ehrenfreund