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Adolescent Identity Formation Online

What is Identity Formation and how is it accomplished?

Identity construction is a unique time in every adolescent’s life. Noteworthy stage theorist, Erik Erikson, has illustrated the importance of identity formation in youth lives, further asserting that the age old question of ‘who am I’ becomes salient around the ages of 12 to 18 because for the first time, adolescents are able to understand the importance of identity and that exploration is the primary means by which to achieve it (Schmitt, Dayanim, &  Matthias,  2008). Youth are able to use abstract thinking and place themselves into hypothetical situations to help them find the best ‘fit’ with regard to identities; they’re great at using their imaginations to envision how others will see them upon the changes they enact. This is a transitioning period in life characterized by physiological, cognitive, biological, emotional, and hormonal changes are being made and figuring out who you are in the midst of all of this overhauling is a daunting task to say the least (Schmitt et al., 2008). It is also important to consider that this is a very active search for their identity and information about who they are. Lots of time and energy are invested on their part to reach this important goal as it goes the distance to fulfill their sense of belonging and accomplishment. Erikson impresses upon society that this is a highly mental and social process, rolling cues from the environment, opinions, observations, and reactions from friends and family into making the decision of which steps to take to find out who they are or in which direction to proceed (Schmitt et al., 2008). We look to others to find out about ourselves, this is a process that begins with some degree of intensity in adolescents and may continue on until the end of our days.

Adolescents form their own personal sense of who they are based on many things, to include the reactions and opinions of family and friends as well as what is considered fun and chic by the parameters of the social contexts in which they live. Chief amongst all the input they use to form their identity is the feedback they get from family and friends. This feedback acts as a barometer to help them decide if they are ‘hotter’ or ‘colder’ in terms of hitting that personal identity mark (Schmitt et al., 2008). The individuals who surround the youth, sort of act as the taste testers if you will for the many influential flavors that the youth will use in their journey of discovery.

Why the Web?

The internet has quickly become the most expeditious, central means of communication and access to information so it makes perfect sense that this trend in media would trickle down to impact the lives of youth everywhere. There are numerous reasons why the internet has become the chosen means by which adolescents discover their identity. Adolescents find that the internet and social personal web pages offer them a safe place to try on different ‘hats’ or try out new personalities without the fear of rejection or embarrassment and the normal risks associated with real life trials of the same magnitude (Schmitt et al., 2008). The internet, especially sites like Facebook and Myspace offer prominent places for youth to put themselves out there in a textural/multimedia forum for others to see. Subsequently, adolescents are able to garner an audience of as many or as few as they feel comfortable with and also gain access to other teens with whom they would never regularly have any interaction with. They can also experience self disclosure effects via divulging personal information about themselves to others which can lead to deep interpersonal relationships forming online with varying degrees of intimacy, which maybe they have not done yet in the real world because they don’t feel comfortable (Schmitt et al., 2008). Adolescent personal web pages are focused solely on self presentation, effectively allowing the adolescent to tell others who they are (and sometimes give cues about who they want to be) through the content on their page. The ambiguity and sense of decreased inhibition on the web allows youth to feel like they are less likely to experience inhibitions that one faces in the real world and more likely to experience the desirable sensation of being known by other people, which becomes increasingly important to youth during this stage in their development (Schmitt et al., 2008). The web has a feeling of safety and privacy for many adolescents, especially if they have access to a computer in their bedroom with unrestricted access so it makes for the perfect situation for them to explore themselves through online presentation. Ironically, the reasons behind adolescent use of social networking sites and personal web pages closely parallel the reasons why adults use the very same social media to delve deeper into their true, idealized, and various other selves (Schmitt et al., 2008).

Passé are the days of old when teens spent hours alone in their rooms or with close friends dancing in front of the mirror and practicing personalities in test-run format; trying on different personas in person is out, the web deletes the middle man. Personal web pages give teens the control to present themselves in whatever way they choose to an actual audience that’s also controllable and far less intimidating than showing up in person to try out a new possible identity (Schmitt et al., 2008) Social interaction facilitates identity construction in the real world and the internet is more preferential than other in person methods because of its popularity and social prestige among youth as well as the decrease of inhibitors and the sense of ambiguity it offers. Feedback is a key element that is necessary for teens to calculate how their efforts in self exploration are faring and that feedback is obtained through wall postings, emails, online chatting and messaging, and other various forms of electronic communications. Teens use photos, descriptions about themselves (e.g. likes and dislikes, favorite movies, musical tastes, etc.), status feeds, and posting their current activities or moods for all to see as a means through which to glean the feedback.

In Summation, personal web pages, particularly social networking sites are not only becoming a more popular means of identity construction among adolescents, but they’re very functional too! Self disclosure is equally important to identity formation and the web is an easy way to present such information to others in a way that they feel more comfortable with and this can facilitate and deepen interpersonal relationships among peers.

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Subrahmanyam, K., Greenfield, P., & Smahel, D. (2006). Connecting developmental constructions to the internet: identity presentation and sexual exploration in online teen chat rooms. Developmental Psychology, 42 (3), 395 - 406.