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This presentation addresses the topic of youth agency in a digital age. We will explore what youth agency looks like online; what factors undermine it; and how might different stakeholders—such as educators, parents, and technology developers—support it?
In The App Generation, Gardner and Davis (2013) presented a framework for understanding young people’s relationship to digital media technologies. Using the ‘app’ as a metaphor for digital and networked technologies more broadly, they introduced the idea of an ‘app mentality’ that characterizes the mindset of many of today’s youth. When they have an impulse to share an experience, connect with someone, look up a piece of information, remind themselves to do something, and so on, young people are quick to turn to the appropriate application on their device to accomplish their goal. The app mentality suggests that there should be an appropriate app at the ready to satisfy whatever impulse one might have. If the wanted app does not exist, it should be possible to create one quickly and with relative ease.
There is nothing inherently wrong with the app mentality. Quite the opposite. Humans have always used the tools of their time to augment their natural abilities and accomplish their goals. We would expect nothing different when it comes to digital technologies. However, Gardner and Davis have found in their research that the app mentality manifests in different ways, many of them positive, but some of them less so.
The positive manifestation of the app mentality is ‘app-enabling.’ App-enabled youth use their devices as tools for productive work, for self-expression, to connect with friends and family, and to discover new ideas and experiences. In contrast, youth who exhibit signs of ‘app-dependence’ don’t seem to be in the driver’s seat of their digital experiences. Instead, they yoke their actions, social relationships, and sense of self disproportionately to what they experience online. Ultimately, the distinction between app-enablement and app-dependence has to do with where the agency lies. App-enabled individuals retain their sense of agency as they engage in digitally mediated experiences; app-dependent individuals struggle to do so.
How does one become app-enabled or app-dependent? In this presentation, we will explore the specific experiences that youth have with technology that give rise to either app-enablement or app-dependence. We will consider the types of behaviors that parents model for their children; the curricular supports that educators provide their students around technology use; and the design choices that developers make when creating technologies used by young people. Drawing on insights from design-driven empirical studies, we will present a framework for understanding how these and other stakeholders (e.g., peers, extended family) lead youth toward app-enablement or app-dependence, as well as the role that each stakeholder can play in promoting youth agency in a digital age.