The App Generation: How Today’s Youth Navigate Identity, Intimacy, and Imagination in a Digital World – A Review

My experience with the digital world
By Elizabeth El-Akkad
(Context Book Assignment)

Note from Michael: We lost track of the images Elizabeth used in this post.

It is interesting to reflect on how rapidly technology has changed over the past 3+ decades. As someone born in the 1980’s I lived the first half of my life in a time of minimal direct technological influence, and the latter at a breakneck speed. I am of the generation who grew up just as digital technology was taking off. From the late 1990’s through the present day my laptop and even more so, my cell phone has been home to a multitude of apps that endeavor to enhance, simplify and organize my life.  These apps on my phone at best guess have replaced the following items: a calculator, atlas, dictionary/encyclopedia, address & phone book, camera, alarm clock, TV, newspaper, books, wristwatch, navigation system, CD’s & DVD’s, radio, flashlight, paper and pencil, photo albums, banking, and if I dared my wallet. The ability to pay using apps such as Samsung pay means I never have to worry about carrying cash or a physical credit card. As long as I have a full battery and a data signal why carry a dozen items if one item can do it all?

For fun, you can watch the Sesame Street “There’s an app for that” video on Youtube. 

In their book The App Generation: How Today’s Youth Navigate Identity, Intimacy & Imagination in a Digital World authors Howard Gardner and Katie Davis examine the role technology plays in the lives of today’s youth. By comparing their own experiences, research, and interviews with those who can’t remember a time before constant connectivity the authors explore how apps affect our Identity, Intimacy, and imagination and if apps make us dependent, or if apps open us to a world of endless opportunities.

Do the personal costs outweigh the benefits?

On the surface, it might seem that apps are working to solve almost every single task we could imagine: banking, travel arrangements, homework, bill paying, and tracking current events, etc. But at what cost? The text reveals that apps can do one of two things, encourage the user to pursue new possibilities which the authors call app-enabling or conversely allow users to become app-dependent, where apps limit the way things can be done, by presenting only a select few options, choices and alternatives.

The authors also explain that digital technologies have had an adverse effect on “our sense of personal identity, our intimate relationships to other persons, and how we exercise our creative and imaginative power…” (Gardner & Davis, p.3, 2014). Each of these areas can become compromised when the users engage with apps. A few examples include: promoting superficial relationships (such as befriending and following acquaintances on Facebook), limiting one’s imagination (such as using music composition apps that supply fill in the blank lyrics, which means no originality is needed), discouraging face to face communication (apps like Snapchat), and preventing users from discovering their own identity (identity foreclosure).


While it might seem that digital users are probably becoming more and more app-dependent we should not be completely discouraged. The authors found that digital technologies can have a positive impact on imagination and creativity. When people or groups use apps as a way to build upon something new they become app-enabled, and therefore not limiting themselves by what the app can already do, app-dependent.

The App Generation & the Hyperlinked Library

Today’s digital natives and immigrants (See the Helpful Definitions section at the end of the paper) use a variety of apps to communicate and participate in the areas that interest them. The Hyperlinked library is (among other things) a model that“…is built on human connections and conversations” (Stephens, n.d.). Like the Hyperlinked library, many apps are possible because they create a sense of community, allow a human connection, and promote communication. A great example is an app created by the famous TV show American Idol. Fans have the ability to use the app to watch show highlights, vote, upload selfies, and to see what is happening on social media, all while connecting with a community that understands why they love the show.

What can librarians learn from The App Generation?

A conversation between Howard Gardner and his 6 ½-year-old grandson Oscar on his experience with digital media was quite eye-opening. Oscar, even at a young age was well versed in technological jargon and spent quite a bit of time online. At one point he was asked how he would feel if he was not allowed to use the computer or phone for a few weeks, and the answer was surprising. He replied that he might be a little upset at first but he would actually “have a little bit more freedom” (Howard & Davis, p.196). He would then have time to play with his toys and spend more time with his sister and parents. His response is a significant one for librarians to hear, especially as a child and a digital native. While children are comfortable being connected to the digital world it can prevent them from engaging in enjoyable tasks and embracing meaningful relationships in real life. Librarians should keep this in mind that promoting opportunities that are “unplugged” could be a welcome change for digital natives.

I was happy to read that many libraries are already trying to find a balance between digital and traditional services for their youth patrons. In Library 2.0 a Guide to Participatory Library Service the author was visiting a library in North Carolina when they observed the following, “I was amazed to see amid the high-tech learning tools a number of teens playing old-fashioned board games, reading books, and playing cards” (Casey & Savastinuk, p.8, 2007). It is clear today’s youth and teens enjoy a balance of high-tech entertainment (Xbox and computers) and low-tech entertainment (painting, board games, and writing). To stay relevant libraries must be able to provide services and supply information to patrons in the format that they find the most desirable. If “the central purpose of libraries is to provide a service: access to information” (Buckland, Introduction para. 1, 1992) then we need to be sure our digital natives, like most digital immigrants, are able to enjoy both digital and traditional services.



I think it’s important that we look at the bigger picture of the findings of The App Generation: How Today’s Youth Navigate Identity, Intimacy, & Imagination in a Digital World, not that apps are inherently good or bad for us, but that they are becoming intertwined in our lives and most likely here to stay. If we focus on allowing apps to enable us to do great things, such as forming communities, connecting people near and far, and presenting opportunities that were previously out of reach, we can begin to appreciate and benefit from apps. If we allow them  to apps can enhance our lives and open us to a world of endless possibilities.

Helpful Definitions

It might be helpful to clarify some terms used in this review for those unfamiliar with the contents of the book.

App– “An “app” or “application” is a software program, often designed to run on a mobile device that allows the user to carry out one or more operations” (Gardner & Davis, p.6).

Digital native- a term used to describe today’s young people, those who have grown up immersed in digital technology.

Digital immigrant– a term used to describe a person born before the widespread use of digital technology.

Lastly, I thought it might be interesting to briefly share how frequently apps are used. I turned to Wikipedia (a free encyclopedia, written collaboratively by the people who use it) to share the definition of a digital native, “a person that grows up in the digital age, rather than acquiring familiarity with digital systems as an adult, as a digital Immigrant” (Digital native, n.d.). Wikipedia can be accessed at  or “…is available as an App on smartphones and tablets” (Gardner & Davis, p.31).


Buckland, M. (1992). Redesigning library services: A manifesto. Chicago: American Library Association.

Casey, M., & Savastinuk, L. (2007). Library 2.0: A Guide to Participatory Library Service. Medford: Information Today.

Digital Native (n.d.). Retrieved from

Gardner, H., & Davis, K. (2014). The app generation: How Today’s Youth Navigate Identity, Intimacy, and Imagination in a Digital World. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Stephens, M. (n.d.). Syllabus. Retrieved from

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