Should We Be Concerned About Teens' Online Identities?

Mary E. Muscari, PhD, CPNP, APRN-BC, CFNS


December 15, 2010


Given the increased popularity of social networking, should NPs be concerned with how teens portray themselves online?

Response from Mary Muscari, PhD, CPNP, APRN-BC, CFNS
Associate Professor, Decker School of Nursing, Binghamton University, Binghamton, New York; Pediatric Nurse Practitioner, Psychiatric Clinical Specialist, and Forensic Clinical Specialist, Sex Offender Assessment Board/Pennsylvania Board of Probation & Parole, Harrisburg, Pennsylvania

Teens and Their Online Identities

Are your adolescent clients "Jekylls and Hydes" – one personality in the real world, but another in cyberspace? A 2010 Girl Scouts of America nationwide survey of more than 1000 girls (ages 14 through 17) found that girls downplayed several positive personal characteristics in their online networking -- chiefly their intelligence, kindness, and efforts to be a positive influence. When face-to-face, however, girls said they were smart (82%), kind (76%), and a good influence (59%). However, online they considered themselves fun (54%), funny (52%), and social (48%).

Girls who had low self-esteem were more likely to admit that their online images did not match their face-to-face images (33% vs 18% of girls with high self- esteem) and were also more likely to claim that they portrayed their online image as sexy (22% vs 14%) and crazy (35% vs 28%).[1] Although this survey only looked at girls 14 through 17, it does raise an important issue for nurse practitioners (NPs) and other clinicians: who are our adolescent clients when they are online, and what do their virtual personas mean in terms of their health?

Teens and Media Use

Recent advances in technology have put the whole world in teens' hands via mobile communication devices. Improved wireless telephone and Internet access allow adolescents to contact peers almost anytime and anywhere, whether in short bursts of information (tweets or microblogs) or information overload (blogs), and everything in between (texting, social network posts). A Kaiser Family Foundation Study by Rideout, Foehr, and Roberts[2] showed that youths, ages 8-18 years, have increased their media consumption time by 1:17 hours daily over the past 5 years, from 6:21 hours to 7:38 hours, nearly the same amount of time their parents spend at work each day. When factoring in use of more than a single medium at a time, that 7:38 hours is equivalent to 10 hours and 45 minutes, an increase of more than 2 hours.[2]

Today, 20% of media consumption (2:07 hours) occurs on mobile devices, including cell phones, MP3/MP4 players, or handheld video game systems. The proportion of 8- to 18-year-olds who have their own cell phones grew from 39% to 66%. Online media have made significant inroads in young lives. The continued expansion of high-speed home Internet access and the development of compelling new applications such as social networking have contributed to increased daily media consumption among young people. Modern 8- to 18-year-olds spend an average of 1.5 hours (1:29 hours) daily using the computer outside of school work, an increase of almost half an hour over 5 years ago (when it was 1:02 hours). Home Internet access has expanded from 74% to 84% among young people; the proportion of young people with a laptop has grown from 12% to 29%; and bedroom Internet access has jumped from 20% to 33%. Newer capabilities have also affected access; social networking sites, such as Facebook, were not widely available 5 years ago.[2] The availability of mobile devices, high-speed Internet, and social networking sites give teens more chances to experiment with their identities.

Identity and Self in Adolescence

Identity development is a core task of adolescence. Erickson[3] viewed identity development as a lifelong process that assumes special significance in adolescence. He proposed that adolescents face a normative crisis that involves a struggle to achieve authentic identities, during which adolescents need to experiment and test different roles before they make a commitment to big decisions, such as career. Most modern identity researchers view the self and identity as 2 different but related constructs. The assumption here is that whereas individuals have only 1 self, they can have many different identities that vary across relational contexts, including family, school, and peers. It is in late childhood and early adolescence when self and identity most reflect the interpersonal domain. Peer relationships become more important and intense, especially with respect to personal competence. Within these relations, children learn about social and group conformity, deviancy, and what it means to be included or excluded.[4,5,6,7]

Identities in a Virtual World

Subrahmanyam and Greenfield[8]note that the evidence is mixed as to whether adolescents engage in extensive pretense and identity play online. One study on online pretense in 12- to 15-year-olds showed that 49% had never pretended to be someone else, and 41% reported pretending a couple of times.[9] Seven of 175 participants reported pretending often, and only 2 reported pretending all the time, with most pretending to be older, often in the company of a friend and as a joke. Only 2% reported that they pretended so that they could explore a new self or identity.[10]

However, in another survey, 246 of 600 respondents reported experimenting online with their identities at least sometimes, usually pretending to be older. Common motives for identity experiments were self-exploration, social compensation, and social facilitation. The motive to engage in identity experiments for self-exploration was predicted by gender.

Girls experiment with their identities more often than boys, motivated by the desire to explore their selves and investigate how they appear in the eyes of others. Both younger extroverts and older introverts experimented with their identities for reasons of self-exploration. The motive to experiment for social compensation was predicted by gender and introversion. Girls and introverts experiment with their identities for reasons of social compensation more often than boys and extroverts. Engaging in Internet-based identity experiments to facilitate relationship formation was negatively predicted by age. Early adolescents engage in identity experiments for social facilitation more often than older adolescents. Valkenburg, Schouten, and Peter demonstrated that the Internet may play an important role in the adolescent's identity exploration.[7]

Subrahmanyam and Greenfield[8] conclude that the evidence suggests that many adolescents pretend to be someone else online, even if infrequently, and that many pretend to be older. However, given that many online sites have age restrictions, it is possible that this pretense is more about sidestepping the restrictions and less about identity exploration.[8]

These findings are not surprising. Girls have been "dumbing down" in certain social scenarios, usually to impress boys, well before the Internet was invented. Teens have long faked being older to bypass age restrictions. However, given the increasing use of online communications, especially social networking, by adolescents, their online personas can still provide insight as to who they are, what they do, and how they feel. The Internet (without Webcam use) is distinguished by reduced auditory and visual cues, which may encourage adolescents to emphasize, change, or conceal certain features of their physical selves. Internet communication is anonymous, which may trigger adolescents to feel less inhibited about disclosing certain aspects of themselves, because the potential repercussions that exist in real life are reduced. Internet communication often happens in social communities that are isolated from those in real life, which may encourage identity experiments.[7]


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