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Howard Gardner Discusses Dependence on Electronics

By Harrison K. Wexner, Contributing Writer

Education professor Howard E. Gardner ’65 and information assistant professor Katie Davis discussed young adults’ increasing dependence on electronic devices at a Cambridge Forum meeting Monday evening at First Parish Church in Harvard Square.

The 90-minute event, which was so crowded that some attendees had to sit in preschool-sized chairs, centered on Gardner and Davis’s new book, “The App Generation,” which was released in October.

Gardner, a professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education known for his theory of multiple intelligences, and Davis, an assistant professor at the University of Washington Information School, emphasized the dichotomy between what they call “app-enabled” and “app-dependent” young people. Both terms refer to the millions of applications available on smartphones.

A simple test for app dependency, Davis said, is to “see what happens when their phones die.” Although Davis said that she becomes distressed when this happens, people who are not app-dependent are able to cope with losing access to electronic communication.

The duo emphasized identity, intimacy, and imagination as key areas affected by technological dependency for “digital natives.”

Youth perceptions of identity are “increasingly externally oriented,” Davis said, adding that many young people try to craft “desirable images of themselves” on social media websites such as Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.

Turning to the supposed loss of intimacy, Gardner said that “people have hundreds of friends… but very few people they feel they can trust.”

He said that the average number of friends Americans confide in has decreased from three to two. He said that this phenomena, though counterintuitive given increased connectivity, may be caused by the decreasing emotional depth of relationships due to constant digital connections.

Finally, Gardner and Davis said that, although apps might foster creativity in specific areas, they are, by nature, limited and prevent creativity from moving outside of bounds created by the developer.

In a segment that they said would be relevant to parents and teachers in the crowd, Gardner and Davis said that they created the term “super app” to describe young adults who see their future as a singular, linear path marked by high achievement.

Such people, Gardner said, “first have to go to the right school, and then they have to go the right college, and then they have to pick the right major….”

During a question-and-answer period at the end of event, many parents expressed concern that their children were on the path to app dependency.

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