Since the 1950s, social scientists have studied creativity using a standard called the Torrance Tests of Creative Thinking. Using that measure, researchers have found creativity in decline among young people over the past two decades.
Now, a recent study has refined the picture of adolescent creativity. A team of researchers, led by Katie Davis of the University of Washington, found that it matters what kind of art you’re talking about. Taking examples of fiction and visual art published in student literary magazines in the 1990s and 2000s, Davis and her team catalogued them by characteristics such as genre, structure, tone, style, and other criteria. What they found surprised them: Fiction by adolescents was more inventive and experimental in the 1990s, while stories written in the 2000s stick more closely to everyday reality. “What we found was the creative writing became more mundane,” Davis tells Kurt Andersen in an interview. “They may take place in a school or in a home, whereas in the earlier pieces they may take place on Mars.”
Davis chalks up the decline in literary creativity to changes in educational policy as well as technology. “With the introduction of No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top, there’s an increased emphasis on passing a standardized test, and there’s not a lot of room for experimenting and risk-taking.” And while texting and social media have encouraged teenagers to write more than ever, that writing is mostly ephemeral. “There’s a sense that whatever you communicate is not going to last,” Davis says. “It’s going to get drowned out in the sea of tweets that it’s posted among.”
But living digital isn’t just a negative influence. When it comes to visual art, Davis found that young people are actually becoming more creative — adding complexity and experimenting more with composition. This, she believes, is the result of support young artists can find online. “There are just so many more tools available for young people to create [art],” Davis explains. “You can post something online and, especially if you post it in an online community like deviantART, you’re going to get valuable feedback that’s probably going to push you forward in your work.”
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