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Adolescence and Internet Identity

How does an online presence affect the development of adolescent identity?

If I were an academic or research psychologist, and not just an observational one in private practice, I would take a fresh look at identity formation in adolescence.

Why? Because I believe how it is created, expressed, and used today is complicated in a way that has never existed before, when it was already complicated enough. I’ll back up to explain what I mean.

In my view, twin objectives of adolescent development are gaining sufficient Independence and Identity to sustain a functional adulthood. Independence is achieved through gathering increasing power of responsibility until able to become one’s own self-governing and self-supporting authority. Identity is achieved by experimenting with different images, interests, and experiences until able to come up with an authentic sense of individuality that fits the unique kind of person one is and mostly likes to be. Neither independence nor identity is simply given to adolescents; both take effort to create.

I think of identity formation as the set of significant personal equations a young person claims to describe who and how they are. For example, these identity equations might include: I am my Family, I am my Interests, I am my Tastes, I am my Appearance, I am my Performance, I am Friends, I am my Possessions, I am my School, and on and on.

In adolescence, identity equations define oneself to oneself and socially convey that definition to others at a time when changing and communicating this description is more important than ever before. Because one is no longer a child and not yet an adult, there is a lot of identity redefinition and development that an adolescent needs to do.

In childhood, one identifies with parents to whom one is attached. The child wants to be similar to the primary people she loves. Come adolescence and the age of detachment from parents, there is more identifying with peers and experimenting with changing identities to discover what fits the older person one is becoming. Some identity declarations can be pretty dramatic: “I am different than I was as a child, than are my parents and than how they want me to be!” At this juncture, it is important for parents to keep in mind that different identities based on personal beliefs, tastes, appearance, dress, interests, relationships, and aspirations that emerge are mostly of a trial and not a terminal nature. Present definition is not usually "forever."

Now, add to the traditional identity formation process what is a now a uniquely complicating factor: the Internet. This is where my curiosity about online presence and adolescent identity development begins.

Today young people grow up in two worlds, not one. There is offline, actual world of daily face to face interactions and practical tasks, and there is online, virtual world of electronically mediated connections with immense positive possibilities. In this online world there is an ever increasing multiplicity of places young people can meet and hang out and play with each other, there are a multiplicity of ways they can communicate and network with each other, there are a multiplicity of ways they can gather all kinds of information and entertain themselves, and there are a multiplicity of ways they can post and go public with statements of personal identity.

Just think about the freedom of new self-definitional possibilities. It’s mind boggling. Today an adolescent gets to decide how they want to portray and promote themselves, then post this image in one digital form or another on that universal bulletin board, the World Wide Web, for all who are interested to see. At most, if a large number of people pay you attention then, at least in the moment, you can achieve some social notoriety based on how many friends, followers, likes, or views one gets, for example.

Real world identity is no longer enough; now a virtual presence is required because the new sense seems to be, “If you’re not on the Web, you’re nobody.”

So today’s adolescent has two identities to manage – one in the real world and one in the virtual world. In-person and Internet identities are not exactly the same. Compared to the more spontaneous in-person identity, an adolescent’s internet identity is a much more carefully crafted one. Every posted description of oneself, be it a social networking page or an online video tour of one’s computer desk layout or set-up, to everything beyond and in between, is an advertisement intended to define self, publicize personal image, enhance social standing, and attract attention, particularly of peers.

Sometimes it seems that the Internet has amplified the importance of “self” identification and identity to the point that the term has become a kind of acronym. SELF = “Showcase Every Little Fact” about me. Nothing seems too trivial to post, even a "selfie" photograph. With this increased "self" preoccupation, we may have entered a more narcissistic age, people increasingly entranced with admiring the Internet reflection they have created, treating it as a chance to star in their own and other people's eyes.

Psychologically speaking, establishing internet identity is new with this generation of adolescents, and there is little precedent they can rely on for how to project themselves and protect themselves at the same time. Like texting over the cell phone, and like transmitting all kinds of digital information over the smartphone, this power of self-expression, like any power, can be both used and abused. For example, once clicked and sent on its Internet way, a message of any electronic kind (audio, written, video, or photo) has an apparent half-life of forever. The crazy party picture in college still seems to be getting around long after a young person has outgrown that kind of “fun” activity. So in addition to gifts of an Internet presence, there are problem sides of any statement of internet identity – it has lasting presence that can follow you into adult life, and it can create an uncontrollable exposure and attraction both for good and ill.

Problems of Internet identity for adolescents are not just a computer security and privacy concern, but is a psychological one as well. At issue is how young people use online expression to work out and represent changing adolescent identities over time -- how they are, how they aspire to be, and how they want to be seen.

In addition, for a growing number of young people, their online identity started long before adolescence, in early childhood when parents were eager for a daughter’s or son’s Internet presence to begin. It's complicated. Is this early Internet record meant to identify the child, the parents, or both?

A recent New York Times article (5/15/15, B12) begins by asking the question: “How Young is too Young for a Digital Presence?” Reporter Molly Wood wrote: “…It’s hard to know exactly how to treat your child’s digital identity… The modern child of web-minded parents has a rich digital history all her own well before she even starts to manage it herself.” The writer ends her article by asking another question: “If a child grows up unrecorded, what is his identity at all?”

I believe Internet identity formation in adolescence is worth taking time to study. Since I don’t know enough to helpfully say much on this score, maybe some better informed readers can write in with a more adequate understanding about the contribution having an online presence is making to the development of adolescent identity today.

For more about parenting adolescents, see my book, “SURVIVING YOUR CHILD’S ADOLESCENCE” (Wiley, 2013.) Information at:

Next week’s entry: Adolescence and Learning from Experience

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