Individuals born at a certain time often share distinctive characteristics — and pundits like to pin labels on them. We speak readily about baby boomers, millennials, Generation X and the like. As psychologists interested in the impact of networked technologies, in the early part of the century, we undertook a study of young Americans. We concluded that they were well described as the “App Generation,” a cohort that expected there to be “just-in-time” solutions and answers to a wide range of needs and desires.
We distinguished between two groups: Youth who were more often than not “app-dependent” — helpless or hapless in the absence of an appropriate app — and youth who were “app-enabled” — able to use apps as appropriate but to go beyond them in seeking their own questions, puzzles, solutions and creations.
Young people have always had to deal with unexpected traumatic world events — the attacks of 9/11, the 2008 financial crisis; but events of the last months — in particular the worldwide pandemic — have posed unique challenges as well as opportunities. And so we decided to study how the current situation — school in suspense, mobility minimized, powerful virus — has impacted the current generation.
Over a three-month period early in the pandemic, with our graduate students, we followed a group of 21 Seattle-area teens (ages 14 to 19 years) who represented a diversity of racial, cultural and socioeconomic backgrounds. We spoke to them at length about how they were using the unstructured time that had opened up for them when school went online and extracurricular activities went on hiatus. We also asked them several times a week to report how they were feeling, as well as how — and how much — they were using technology.
To our surprise, the total time teens spent on their digital devices on one day had no relationship to how positive or negative they felt the next day. The same was true for the total amount of time teens spent using social media — a common focus of public hand wringing about youth and technology.
What did matter? Two telling themes emerged. By far the most salient feature was the satisfaction teens derived from their technology use. The greater the satisfaction with technology, the better teens felt with life in general, irrespective of how much time they had spent on YouTube, TikTok or Instagram.
What did these teens count as a satisfying technology experience? Enjoyment was certainly part of it, but meaning was just as important. A heartfelt conversation with a friend, insight about world events, the development of new skills — these were the types of experiences that left teens feeling that their time online was time well spent.
The second theme relates directly to our earlier study. We sought to ascertain which teens are more likely to find satisfaction in their technology use (app-enablement) versus which teens repeatedly fall down the autoplay rabbit hole (app-dependence).
App-enabled teens tended to have deep passions before the pandemic — things such as music, Boy Scouts, video editing. They approached their technology use with purpose, seeking to gain new knowledge, skills and social connections related to their interests. These teens were in the driver’s seat of their technology use. Notably, they were also more likely to have a social network (family members, peers, and/or online acquaintances) that supported them in discovering and deepening their passions.
In contrast, another group of teens — whom we dub app-dependent — seemed aimless, almost “on hold.” They engaged in the same kinds of activities across days, did not go deeper or wider, and allowed themselves to be led from one video or trending topic to the next until they had that feeling, familiar to so many of us, of wasted time at the hands of one’s devices.
There is, alas, no app for finding meaning in the unstructured time that has opened up for teens during the pandemic. In fact, the existing apps more often than not contribute to a sense of aimlessness, especially if youth lack the supports to tap into their interests and put their devices to good use.
Optimally, persons of any age are well-placed in a pandemic if they already have an enduring sense of purpose. But for those who do not, especially young persons, it’s incumbent on those closest to them (whether physically or online) to help them find an area that they can pursue, grow, and find meaning there.