Identity, intimacy, and imagination and the digital world

A new book probes how technology is impacting young peoples' sense of identity, relationships and imagination, reveals Emer Sexton.

AS the parent of an 18-year-old, a teenager of the digital age, I see the effects of mobile phone ‘addiction’. Opportunities to make new friends are missed, because teens hide behind mobile phones, instead of making conversation.

And the acceptance of online bullying is frightening.

The Ask Fm website is often highlighted by the media as a facilitator of bullying, and yet most of my daughter’s friends are regular users of it and respond to negative and abusive questions. Switching off is not an option.

The constant (and often anonymous) commenting on Ask fm, or on Facebook or on Twitter, from behind the safety of a screen, hampers emotional development, particularly in a safe, middle-class environment where teens are not confronted with challenges that strengthen empathy and solidarity.

Research on the digital generation is relatively slim, due to its recent emergence.

But a new book, The App Generation, by Howard Gardner and Katie Davis, says the technology has had its greatest impact on young people’s identity, on their ability to have intimate relations, and on their imaginations.

Digital technology and apps have produced a unique generation, according to The App Generation authors — a generation “wrought by technology, fundamentally different in consciousness from its predecessors”. In fact, they argue that in the digital age the term ‘generation’ is no longer solely biological, something that “spanned the period from one’s birth to the time one had offspring,” with technological generations potentially much shorter than earlier political or genealogical generations.

In case you didn’t know, an ‘app’ (short for application) is a “software programme, often designed to run on a mobile device, that allows the user to carry out one or more operations”.

The App Generation is the result of many years of research and analysis, interviews, focus groups and ‘classroom’ experiments, by Gardner and Davis, involving young people, primary school teachers, staff at third-level institutions, religious leaders and mental-health professionals, including psychoanalysts, psychologists and counsellors.

The writers coined the terms ‘app-enabling’ and ‘app-dependence’ to describe young people’s use of digital media. App-enabling describes situations where young people use their devices as a starting point for new experiences, relationships and learning.

App-dependence describes the reliance on apps and devices to answer all queries, for every form of expression, and refers to people who participate in relationships through their devices.

So when you click on that icon you are not just downloading or making use of an app: you are either participating in a global consciousness, or you are abdicating responsibility for your development as a free-thinking individual.

App-dependence, the authors say, is to be avoided in children. Identities must be “properly formed and expressed” outside of the digital world, or else people risk “difficulty in forming intimate relations, difficulty rearing the next generation, forging new paths and achieving satisfying closure at the end of life”.

Take, for example, Facebook: it allows users to “package” their lives for display, to present an upbeat, polished version of themselves. As a result, young people are notably accomplished at taking ‘selfies’ and manipulating their bodies to ensure a flattering image.

The result? The Facebook ‘generation’ is self-conscious to an extent that would have been unthinkable for earlier generations.

The internet also pivots around achieving “pleasing” results. This isn’t good for young people, as they try to explore the world.

For example, when we search online on different computers we get different results.

This is because (taking Google as, perhaps, the most popular search engine) Google uses an algorithm to return search results based on data retained about our previous searches, our gmail contacts, our interests, etc. We are directed towards like-minded individuals and groups.

This may make us feel secure, but it leaves us unchallenged in our opinions.

Their research also highlights how digital living may disrupt the mental processes that lead to creative thought.

Apps reduce periods of quiet reflection and creative daydreaming, and eliminate boredom, “which has long been a powerful stimulator of the imagination”.

But the inspiration for the Harry Potter series came to JK Rowling on a four-hour-long train journey, at the end of which the young magician’s life was almost completely mapped out.

How different the landscape of children’s literature would be, today, if she had been engrossed in mobile apps, instead of merely daydreaming?

The authors suggest that a digital curriculum, based around the concerns and issues they raise, should be put in place in schools. This would educate children on the “ethical conundrums” inherent in maintaining an online life.

But the “young people” in the book are all middle to upper-class Americans, and are financially enabled to take advantage of available digital technology, so one wonders if this approach would work on young people from disadvantaged backgrounds. Or do these issues cross class?


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