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Originally published Sunday, January 12, 2014 at 3:04 AM

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“The App Generation:” the dubious influence of apps

“The App Generation,” a new book by Howard Gardner and Katie Davis, looks at the effect of apps on today’s youth. But the authors blame human shortcomings on apps, when it may be the other way around — our weaknesses have shaped technology’s development, not vice versa.

The Washington Post

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“The App Generation: How Today’s Youth Navigate Identity, Intimacy, and Imagination in a Digital World”

by Howard Gardner and Katie Davis

Yale University Press, 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. 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 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.

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

Max Ehrenfreund can be reached at

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