Study: Today's Teens Pushing Limits in Art, but Not in Writing

Nov 22, 2013

Today’s teens are pushing the boundaries in their artwork, but playing it safe in the stories they write, according to new research by the University of Washington Information School and the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

Using a set of criteria, the study examined artwork and writing produced by teens and published in magazines between 1990 and 2011.

Fewer Risks in Writing

Katie Davis, a UW assistant professor and one of the authors of the study, said teens used to write stories that didn’t follow a linear arc.

"There is this sense where the earlier pieces were just more out there, and taking more risks," Davis said.

Teen’s stories used to also include more surrealism, Davis said, and provided the following example: "There was a narrator who goes to his psychiatrist's office. And his psychiatrist is a crab. And at the end of the story the narrator grabs his psychiatrist-crab with a pair of tongs.”

It's unclear why teens are moving toward a more conventional writing practice. But one thing worth noting, Davis said, is that today’s teachers are under heightened pressure to get their students to pass standardized tests.

"In the classroom, there’s a focus on really mastering the five-paragraph essay and not playing with any sort of structure," she said.

More Coloring Outside the Lines

But when it comes to art, teens are coloring outside the lines, so to speak. Their work is getting more experimental, researchers found. The subject is not always centered, and the backgrounds are more detailed. And teens are moving away from pen and pencil, and using a broader range of mediums, like collage.

"There was evidence of stylized cropping in the more recent pieces where the figures extended beyond the visual plane," Davis said.

One reason for this more sophisticated type of artwork could be the availability of smartphone apps and other technology like Photoshop. 

"They have more tools to work with to engage in creative acts," Davis said.

Access to the Internet means teens can take virtual tours of museums. They have quicker access to works of art. But Davis said it’s not clear whether teens are being more innovative, or simply copying what they find on the web.

The Power of Creativity

It’s important to note there is no agreed-upon definition of "creativity,” Davis said, but an analysis of individual elements shows more originality emerging visual art.

In an ideal world, Davis said, teens would have more time to explore and experiment in the classroom and with assignments. Creativity, she added, helps stave stagnation.

"That's how we progress—by individuals and groups who think in new ways and invent things,” she said.

The paper will be published in the January edition of Creativity Research Journal. The findings are also discussed in Davis' recent book, "The App Generation,”  which she co-authored with Howard Gardner.