“To grow up with technology, as my generation has, is to constantly question the self, to split into multiplicities, to try to contain our own contradictions.” That sentence from Taylor Fang, the winner of our youth essay contest (page 36), neatly sums up the experience of juggling one’s identities on Facebook, Snapchat, TikTok, Instagram, and other platforms, each with its own unwritten norms of sharing and self-expression. But I think it also captures the struggle of adults trying to understand the role of technology in their children’s lives. How do ubiquitous digital devices influence the way young people learn, make friends, understand the world, and understand themselves? These are the questions we tackle in this issue, and the answers, too, contain many contradictions.
There’s growing evidence that the trend of outfitting schools with laptops and tablets hasn’t helped kids learn and may even hinder the most vulnerable ones, writes Natalie Wexler. In China, one company claims huge success in using artificial intelligence to deliver personalized learning, Karen Hao reports—but is it just turning children into machines for passing standardized tests?
A few universities have already installed voice assistants in every dorm room, and more are following suit. As Kathryn Miles explains, these devices are gleaning data about students’ first experiments with adulthood, and there’s no knowing how that data will be used in the future. Philosophy professor Ron Srigley’s students were shocked to discover just how much their studies and social lives improved when they surrendered their cell phones for two weeks, yet most couldn’t imagine giving them up for good. And when young adults finally enter the workforce, argues Malcolm Harris, they face a grim future of climate change, precarious career prospects, and economic and political unrest.
What about the common fears that technology is depriving kids of real human contact or warping their self-image under the pressure of social-media popularity contests? Here the answers are more mixed.