Internet Issues and Identity

Yesterday I talked about a 2008 report from the Harvard Graduate School of Education called Young People, Ethics, and the New Digital Media (go to Monday’s post to download the article in its entirety).  The authors identified five key issues in regards to the topic:

  • identity
  • privacy
  • ownership and authorship
  • credibility
  • participation

This report worked to provide a balanced perspective on how social media influences (and is influenced by) teenagers.  This post will focus on how identity development comes into play with teens’ social media use.  I first describe the report’s perspective on how youth ethically (or unethically) deal with identity issues and then I go on to extrapolate what this means to how parents should talk with their teenagers about their online identity.


In many ways current thinkers consider adolescence, the teen years, to be critical for identity formation.  The basic idea is that teenagers take on different personas, see how they feel, and move on to new ones, several times over their teen years.  These experiences are often dismissed as “just a phase,” but they are actually quite important to the individual’s development.

While young people can obviously develop their identities in a myriad of ways offline, the online platforms offer specific advantages over offline media in this realm.  The report suggests that on-line spaces provide a positive place for young people to develop their identities in three specific ways:

  • online media offer a whole new realm for self-expression in the form of artistic or linguistic play, which is an inherently critical part of identity formation
  • by creating profiles, individuals are essentially creating themselves, a process which can encourages self-reflection, a critical (and occasionally left-out part of identity development)
  • feedback from others is often an integral part of experiencing and taking part in social media, and it provides young people with a chance to get quick feedback specifically on their developing identity

However, as with most topics as complicated and nuanced as the ethical use of social media, there are potential drawbacks to adolescent use of online media as a form of identity exploration and development.  First, and most obviously, is the potential creation of deceptive or overtly harmful online identities, like a rapist or murderer character in an online role-playing game like Second Life.  Second, while most research suggests that teenagers do not typically create online personas that are radically different from their offline identities, there are some who do.  There is some concern about the long-term implications for those individuals’ identities being modeled on a fractured and multiple sense of self.  It isn’t at all clear yet what, if any, ramifications this path might hold.  The third, and most commonly problematic issue among current teenagers, is the kind and degree of feedback that teenagers search out and receive in their online communities.  This includes, for example, online bullying, which while currently is receiving a lot of attention, was not two years ago.  The issue with feedback also addresses the problem of teenagers who find that they have a hard time “disconnecting” from the constant information and feedback stream from their peers (i.e., from the Internet).


The authors of this report don’t seem to come to any hard and fast conclusions to pass on to parents or teachers about how to help young people safely navigate the online world – reaping its benefits while sidestepping its problems.  But the problems that the authors bring up seem to be ones of (1) poor ethical judgment (in terms of violent personas and offering inappropriate feedback) and (2) degree of interaction with the media (in terms of feeling a deep need for constant connection), and therefore addressable within those contexts.

In the more current research that I have read, teenagers who have poor online judgment tend to also have poor offline judgment.  The decision to create an online identity of a rapist or murderer is an indication that the young person has some anger management issues, gender dynamic issues, or some other problematic force that is making itself clear online.  While there clear indication that violent video games and personas are related to “in real life” (IRL) violence, it is not at all clear whether the digital or the IRL tendencies are cause or effect.  But given that they are related, it is important to address both mediums in our response and our prevention.  For conversations about violence with your children and teenagers, it is important to talk not just about the implications of IRL violence, but also of digital violence.

The same strategies apply for bullying.  While online bullying is becoming more clearly a problem among young people, and it has the potential to be more severe in its scope and longevity than IRL bullying, the ways to address it are not substantially different than addressing IRL bullying.

As for the issue of excessive reliance on constant streaming or feedback, this is often primarily a comfort or habit.  Teenagers often disengage to a degree from adults – this can be a part of their identity development process – and the Internet can be an easy place to engage in after disengaging from IRL adults.  The idea to combat this is to basically offer young people a better option than being online.  This can be hard to do – it can be hard to find something that gets some teenagers motivated to disconnect from online and reconnect with adults, but it can almost always be done.  Even for a young person whose particular interest is digitally-focused, engaging with them in that medium – creating something together or exploring something together – builds real life connections that work to combat the singular draw of the Internet.  With younger teenagers, of course, simply setting household rules on the amount of time spent with media (television, computer, phone) as a whole is often effective and useful in creating an environment where the young person never fully disconnects in the first place.

In addition to stopping the bad from happening, parents also need to encourage the good that can come from online interactions.  Encouraging teenagers to participate in creative, supportive online communities of people they know and interact with IRL has huge potentials for healthy, supportive, open identity development.

This is all to say that online identity development can be a healthy thing for adolescents to engage in, and parents can and should be supportive of the right kind of engagement on this level.  Rather than restricting online access, parents can engage their teenagers in analyzing and assessing what constitutes a healthy online modality.  While younger teenagers might benefit from more direction in their online media use, older teenagers will benefit more fully from a constructive and critical conversation with their parents about the kinds of interactions they are having.  For example, do the interactions leave them feeling good or bad?  Do they think other participants are leaving feeling good or bad?  Do their interactions online support their offline life or detract from it?  Would they be willing to do and say all of the things they do and say online IRL?  These are all critical questions that we could probably all benefit from asking ourselves about our online activities once in a while.

There is so much to talk about here, and I could continue at substantial length on many of these issues, but I am going to stop for today.  Tomorrow: We talk about privacy.

About Karen Rayne

Dr. Karen Rayne has been supporting parents and families since 2007 when she received her PhD in Educational Psychology. A specialist in child wellbeing, Dr. Rayne has spent much of her career supporting parents, teachers, and other adults who care for children and teenagers.

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