Posted by: lcowie | April 29, 2010

How Does Maintaining an Online Identity Affect Adolescent Identity Formation?

The Internet has made communication easier and more accessible to many adolescents. Before the Internet, adolescents had to call their friends or see them in person. Now, there are a variety of online social media applications to enable communication between adolescents. Due to the ego-centric nature of these applications, social networking sites allow adolescents to extend their true personalities to the online world while also adding onto them. The impersonal nature of communicating from behind a computer screen can allow adolescents to create a completely new and unrestrained personality that they would never show in real life. Online social networking sites like Facebook, MySpace, and Twitter have become widespread and popular among many, especially adolescents. It becomes clear that social networking sites allow adolescents to speak freely and to reveal their desired personalities, in addition to the rare moments of truth. The computer screen acts as a shield for adolescents who see that they can say whatever they want. Although myths about online identities exist, adolescents rarely think about the consequences of their online actions. They do not realize that what they say lacks privacy and that their online profiles create a particular perception of them. Therefore, social networking sites hinder adolescent identity formation because they allow adolescents to exaggerate their personalities to form a new identity and force them to find a balance between their true and desired personalities.

Social media is an umbrella term that defines the various activities that integrate technology, social interaction and content creation. Some forms include blogs, microblogging, podcasting, RSS feeds, social media releases, social networks, wikis and virtual worlds. “Despite its diversity and vast applications, the key to social media is the interaction. Standard media traditionally broadcasts its message via television, newspapers and radio. It is a one-sided conversation. Social media, on the other hand, is a two-sided conversation. It not only educates the audience, but it also allows the audience to participate in the discussion” (Harris).

Within the realm of social media are the growingly popular social networks. A social networking service focuses on building and reflecting social networks and relationships among people who share interests, activities or other similarities. A social networking service essentially poses a virtual representation of a user, called a profile. This profile often features the user’s basic information, such as age, location and sex, as well information regarding one’s hobbies, such as favorite movies, musical artists and books. Users are encouraged to connect to one another using a variety of communication tools. These include public profile messages, private e-mail messages, instant messages and gifts. Social networking services rely on user participation and user-generated content. Both features not only provide the basis for which these sites may exist, but they enhance the usability and resulting popularity of the service. The most popular social networking services include MySpace, Facebook, and Twitter.

For the purposes of this research, social media shall refer primarily to the use of MySpace, Facebook, and Twitter. In general, many other applications contribute to social media, including blogs, forums, YouTube, and LinkedIn. Each application allows for two-way participation and user-generated content. Because MySpace, Facebook, and Twitter require ego-centric profiles in their structure, these applications are more likely to influence adolescent identity. Although adolescents use other forms of social media, MySpace, Facebook, and Twitter encourage ego-centric behavior and allow for the most interaction – be it spoken or perceived – among users.

Analyses of Identity Formation

There are many ways to view and define one’s identity. Some descriptions are more superficial than others, as some people believe an identity to simply be one’s outward appearance. People commonly mistaken the way an individual looks for that person’s true identity. This is not always the best approach.

James Marcia, a developmental psychologist from Canada, defines identity as “constructed rather than societally imposed…” (Bosma, 1994, p. 70). This definition lends credence to the idea that adolescents may create a separate identity online than the one they have in real life. This identity is not necessarily shaped or guided by the online community; adolescents develop an identity that they believe makes them better than they actually are. Marcia argues that the more developed the identity is, the more aware adolescents appear to be of their own uniqueness and similarity to others (Adelson, 1980, p. 159). For adolescents, the need to be accepted and considered like everyone else is essential. This indicates that an individual fits into place and belongs in the group. Additionally, feeling special and unique feeds into an adolescent’s ego-centric desires. Although the adolescent keeps the judgments of the community in mind, there are no rules or specific guidelines determining exactly how an adolescent should create an online profile. Instead, the identity created in the online profile comes from the adolescent’s perception of him or herself and how the individual would like for the rest of the online world to perceive him or her. According to Meredith Farkas, online identity is built upon all of the things users have put online and the things people have posted about them.

Many other psychologists and researchers have studied adolescent identity formation. One such example is Erik Erikson, who became known as a developmental psychologist and psychoanalyst for his theory on social development of human beings. Erikson studied identity formation in length, partly as a result of his own life circumstances. He had studied under Anna and Sigmund Freud at the Vienna Psychoanalytical Institute, where he learned about the latter’s five stages of development. Erikson took it a step further and defined eight psychosexual stages for development (Green, 66-71).

According to John Santrock, Erikson’s stages focus heavily on social identity formation and result from his desire to affiliate with other people (50). In contrast to Freud’s belief that a person’s basic personality takes shape within the first five years of life, Erikson believed a person’s identity had to grow over eight stages of development that last over the course of a lifetime (Santrock, 50). Each of Erikson’s stages feature a unique developmental task that confronts the individual with a crisis that must be faced. The crisis becomes a turning point in the individual’s development and occurs at a time of heightened vulnerability. J.R. Hopkins believes the more successful an individual resolves the crisis, the healthier the person’s development will be.

Erikson’s eight stages are as follows: 1. Trust versus mistrust; 2. Autonomy versus shame and doubt; 3. Initiative versus guilt; 4. Industry versus inferiority; 5. Identity versus identity confusion; 6. Intimacy versus isolation; 7. Generativity versus stagnation; and 8. Integrity versus despair (Santrock, 51). An individual experiences these stages beginning in the first year of life and continuing into late adulthood.

Author David Elkind provides the basis for identity construction in his book All Grown Up and No Place to Go. He discusses the stages in which adolescents grow into a mature individual with a healthy sense of identity. In order to become mature, he says, an adolescent must grow through the process of differentiation (the process of discriminating or separating out concepts, feelings, and emotions) and integration (putting the separated parts together into a higher-ordered whole). Some adolescents allow substitution (merely replacing one set of concepts, feelings, or emotions for another) to take precedence over growth through differentiation and integration (Elkind, 18). Substitution is a shortcut to one’s achievement to identity; although it provides an adolescent with an identity, substitution does not allow the adolescent to learn from conflicts and laborious experiences.

Elkind notes that adolescents who acquire their identities through differentiation and integration generally have a consistent sense of self. This is to say that the adolescent has experienced many social situations and has differentiated his or her own thoughts and feelings from the people in the same situation. Regardless of what the adolescent encounters, he or she is able to consistently choose the thoughts and feelings that accurately describe him or herself, rather than someone else. This is part of the reason why people develop unique personalities and stable perceptions of themselves (Elkind, 19). Once an adolescent has grown through this process, the constructed sense of self is virtually impossible to break down.

Many adolescents become exposed to social networking sites at the age of 13. The terms of service for MySpace and Facebook require that an individual be at least 13-years-old before making an account. This age correlates with Erikson’s stage for identity versus identity confusion. Santrock describes the stage as being a time when individuals seek to find out who they are, what they are all about, and where they are going in life (52). Marcia would refer to this stage as an identity crisis, as it is a time of choosing and searching between alternatives for an individual (Adelson, 1980). This is when managing an online profile can add confusion to the situation; adolescents are already seeking an acceptable identity, and through the use of online profiles, they have the ability to physically create and manipulate the identity they want to convey to others.

Because social media takes the adolescent away from the real world, he or she does not have the opportunity to engage in the social situations that Elkind was referring to. The adolescent’s primary form of interaction is through technology. The level of distance granted by technology creates a superficial understanding of what being social means; it is likely that an adolescent will learn and grow from a real-world social interaction differently than in an online social situation.

Furthermore, social networking profiles act as identity substitutions. Adolescents substitute their true interests with what they believe is socially acceptable and convey the latter information on their online profile. They do not have to differentiate their interests from anyone else because the structure and format of a social networking site makes that process unnecessary. The user profile is ego-centric, thus the user does not have to differentiate interests from other users unless he or she wants to do so. Because adolescents using social networking sites do not experience real-world social interactions as often, they cannot grow through differentiation and integration. Social networking sites promote identity construction through substitution, therefore the adolescent does not get to construct a solid sense of self. It may be going too far to say that these adolescents using social networking sites promote their patchwork selves on their online profiles because other users do not directly influence what the user posts on his or her profile, yet it seems clear that the identity presented online does not come from someone with a solid sense of self. A combination of factors influence one’s online identity, ranging from insecurity to narcissism.

Social Media Design vs. Identity Construction

MySpace and Facebook are ego-centrically designed to allow a user to focus heavily on him or herself. The service mandates that a user create a profile and then allows the individual to post photos of him or herself. Users have the option to browse their friends’ profile pages or to simply stay on their own page, adding more unique content.

A new University of Georgia study suggests that users of these services are generally narcissistic. Lead author Laura Buffardi, a doctoral student in psychology, notes that Facebook essentially values self-promotion, through the use of various features on one’s profile. The researchers “gave personality questionnaires to nearly 130 Facebook users, analyzed the content of the pages and had untrained strangers view the pages and rate their impression owner’s narcissism” (“University of Georgia”). It became evident, through the results, that the number of Facebook friends and wall posts that individuals have on their profile pages correlates with narcissism. According to Buffardi, this is consistent with how narcissists behave in the real-world, with numerous yet shallow relationships. Narcissists are also more likely to choose glamorous, self-promoting pictures for their main profile photos, she said, while others are more likely to use snapshots (“University of Georiga”). This is to say that an online profile may not just provide a vehicle for identity creation among adolescents but that it may exaggerate or reinforce negative real-world personality traits. In a sense, the public perception of the user becomes a new identity, perhaps instigated subconsciously by the user.

Associate professor W. Keith Campbell, who co-authored the study, noted that narcissism hampers the ability to form healthy, long-term relationships (“University of Georgia”). This will undoubtedly affect an adolescent’s identity, as he or she could have difficulty expressing interest and value in someone other than him or herself. MySpace and Facebook condition users to be self-centered and to show secondary interest in others.

Grappling with Reality

The communication tools emphasized on social networking sites provide a variety of means for which adolescents can share their thoughts and feelings. Few adolescents consider the consequences of their actions online. They equate instant messages to private telephone conversations, in which phrases and statements disappear immediately after they have been said. Because this is not the reality, adolescents think they can fully embody their online identities without ramifications. Lisa Sohmer, director of college counseling at Garden School in Jackson Heights, NY, describes this unabashed behavior as such:

Your average teen would never plaster the halls of her school with signs declaring whom she’s got a huge crush on, how badly she flunked last week’s algebra test, or what she really thinks about her uncle’s drinking problem. Yet that’s exactly what kids do when they open up and post about their personal lives online (qtd. in Tedeschi).

Sohmer goes on to say that teens share an intimacy of conversation that they would never have with those people in real life. By broadcasting highly personal information, social-networking sites can magnify the usual teen and tween social dramas a hundredfold (Tedeschi). Not only do the two people who hold the original conversation know what was said, but so does everyone who can see their online profiles. Often times, these online conversations are taken out of context and brought into real-world situations, such as school. It is at this crucial moment that an adolescent must decide whether or not to accept that they have a unique online identity in addition to a real-world identity or if they should try to bridge these identities into one encompassing character. This is to say that the teen that has undergone identity achievement (Adelson, 1980) would accept the consequences of his or her actions and take the necessary steps to rectify the situation. Due to the complicated nature of growing up and seeking acceptance among peers, most adolescents will struggle with acknowledging, or even defending, the online identity they have assumed.

Tedeschi’s advice is to emphasize to your teens that over-sharing online can leave them open to bullying, ridicule, and social ostracism. “I tell my 15-year-old niece, anytime you put something on Facebook, it’s like standing onstage in the school auditorium with a megaphone,” said Monica Vila, cofounder of, a Web site devoted to educating parents about how to help kids use technology responsibly (Tedeschi). Not only will maintaining an online profile allow for identity confusion, but it can also be damaging when it negatively affects an adolescent’s real-world identity.

Americans have seen the impact of online pseudo identities in the media recently. Megan Meier was a 13-year-old girl from Missouri who became the victim of cyberbullying. The mother of one of Megan’s former friends had created a MySpace account in which she pretended to be a boy named Josh. Megan mistook the account for a real person and believed everything he told her. When Josh’s messages turned negative, Megan had difficulty escaping the online world she had created and facing the real world. She did not know how to coexist with the MySpace drama, so she committed suicide by hanging three weeks before her 14th birthday. Megan could have had a healthy and productive life, had she not taken the MySpace user so seriously. However, Megan was in a stage in her life when she was facing identity confusion. Public perception, if even by the mysterious “Josh,” consumed her wellbeing and the creation of a healthy real-world identity. Social networking sites that require the creation of a user essentially ask for the creation of an identity, and other users perceive their peer identities as real.

Because social networking sites are so popular among adolescents, it becomes difficult to distinguish one’s real-world identity from his or her online identity. Adolescents are experiencing identity confusion at the time they register for a social networking profile. It would be irrational to believe adolescents could convey a coherent and thorough understanding of their identities through an online profile. With the impersonal nature and safety of the computer screen, adolescents can say and post whatever they want without considering the consequences.

Valuing the Online World More Than Anything

The popularity of online social networking sites has given rise to a familiar stereotype, that the user is a lonely person who stares at a computer screen all day instead of physically interacting with another human being. A report released by the Pew Research Center’s Internet and American Life Project rebels the notion that Internet usage comes in tandem with social isolation.

According to the report, the average person has in-person contact with someone in his or her core network on 138 more days per year than a person who employs e-mail as his or her primary communication tool (Dolliver). This shows that social networking Web sites have not replaced face-to-face interaction as the primary way for people to interact with those who matter to them.

Teenagers in Kristen Lewis’s study acknowledge that the online world has its perks but that it does not compare to the real world. “A little technology isn’t bad, but if you are spending hours on the computer, you start to lose connection,” says teen Lauren Mullins of Chico, California. “You’ll stop walking your dog. Jumping on the trampoline with your sister will come to a halt. The dog- house you and your dad planned on building becomes the doghouse your dad is building alone (qtd. in Lewis).”

Teen Jeongwon Park, of Haltom City, says social networking sites keep individuals away from the real world. “You can connect with people using Twitter or YouTube, but in the end, you don’t know them unless you talk to them in real life,” she explains (qtd. in Lewis).

Anais Alexich- Duran, of Chico, California, agrees. “Although we believe that we are connecting when we text, write, or Webcam our friends and family, we are not connecting,” Anais says. “True communication is when you can physically see, hear, and talk to another person” (qtd. in Lewis).

These interviews demonstrate that these adolescents are aware of the influence social networking sites have upon their existence in the real world. Although they can articulately explain the impact of social media to Lewis, one must wonder if their behaviors online support their words. In addition, Lewis does not state the ages of these adolescents; she simply refers to them as teens. The reader is unable to identify if these subjects are closer to their twenties or if they are in the early stage of adolescence. When she interviewed Mario Jelev, Lewis noted that he was in seventh grade. There is no way of telling if the other three students were in the same grade; their locations spanned California and Texas, so they were not in the same class.

There comes a point when an adolescent understands the impact of social networking sites on his or her daily life. The understanding of oneself, however, often requires a conscious, in-depth analysis of the factors that contribute to one’s personality. This is to say that adolescents may understand that social networking sites expose them to virtual strangers and keep them from playing outside, but perhaps they do not fully grasp how they are portraying themselves through their online profiles.

Nonetheless, studies indicate that social networking sites do not inhibit a user’s sociability or replace face-to-face interaction. The next step in this investigation is to study the quality of content from adolescents. Because social networking sites are still fairly new, few studies exist in which researchers have factual evidence that speaks to the heart of the present research. One can only assume through the structure and capabilities offered by social networking sites, the impersonal nature of computer screens, and the understanding of adolescent identity formation that adolescents are able to live out their desired personalities online.

Based on relevant existing research, it appears as though social networking sites negatively affect adolescent identity formation. They provide adolescents with the tools to divulge in self-centered behavior and trust virtual strangers. Adolescents are experiencing identity confusion at the time when they register for social networking profiles. They are vulnerable to meeting pseudo identities and having to distinguish between what is real and what is fake. The computer screen creates a distant mode of communication, in which the adolescent feels free to expose his or her desired identity without considering the consequences of his or her actions. Free online expression often results in skewed public perception and real-world management on the part of the adolescent, who is not emotionally equipped to handle it. Ultimately, adolescents must find a balance between their true and desired personalities.

Works Cited

Dolliver, Mark. “Internet Loners As Modern Myth.” Mediaweek. 16 Nov. 2009: Research Library, ProQuest. Web. 6 Mar. 2010.

Elkind, David. All Grown Up and No Place to Go. Cambridge, MA: Perseus Books, 1998. Print.

Farkas, Meredith. “Brand Perception 2.0.” American Librarie. 1 Jan. 2010: Research Library, ProQuest. Web. 6 Mar. 2010.

Green, Michael. “Erikson’s Psychosocial Theory,” from Theories of Human Development, Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1989. Print.

Hopkins, J.R. (2000) Erikson, E.H. Encyclopedia of Psychology. Washington, D.C. and New York: American Psychological Association and Oxford University Press.

Lewis, Kristin. “Connection Disconnect.” Scholastic Scope. 7 Sep. 2009: Research Library, ProQuest. Web. 6 Mar. 2010.

Marcia, James. “Identity in Adolescence” in Adelson. Handbook of Adolescent Psychology, NY: Wiley, 1980. Print.

Marcia, James. “The Empirical Study of Ego Identity” in Bosma. Identity and Development, Thousand Oaks: CA, 1994. Print.

Santrock, John W. Adolescence. 10th ed. Boston: McGraw-Hill, 2005. Print.

Tedeschi, Bob.  “5 Mistakes (Even Smart) Kids Make Online.” Good Housekeeping 1 Aug. 2009: Research Library, ProQuest. Web.  6 Mar. 2010.

“University of Georgia; Study: Facebook profiles can be used to detect narcissism.” NewsRx Health & Science. 26 Oct. 2008: Research Library, ProQuest. Web.  6 Mar. 2010.



  1. […] Lesley Cowie in How Does Maintaining an Online Identity Affect Adolescent Identity Formation? […]

  2. […] has the ability to contort many adolescences minds of what is truly reality. Greg, in the following article recommends that academic librarians utilize social networking sites themselves in order to provide […]

  3. […] collective.* There’s a ton of theorizing out there already about the role of social media in identity formation, which I will probably address further in other posts, since I’m almost at 300 words and am […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s


%d bloggers like this: