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Following College Student Digital Identity Development

Each of us have an identity, who we are at our core.  Complete the sentence, I am…
Formally, identity development takes individuals through a process of exploration and commitment (Marcia, 1966).  Like trying out a new hobby, hat or restaurant.  Youth especially explore, adapt and define what fits best into their idea of self.
Emerging technologies have taken our identities onto social media platforms, where we can choose what parts of their identity we will share or not.  From photos to status updates, our posts describe our digital selves.  However, it is not clear to what extent the influence or byproduct social media has on the developmental process of identity formation.
I have written previously about the benefits of social media for youth, as well as found consequences.  I also laid the groundwork of exploring student development theories, as it relates to social media usage.  Many of these frameworks inspect the growth of identity for college students, with recently literature by researchers who have applied these theories to a digital context.
As a doctoral student, studying higher education leadership my research resolves around social media, student development and digital leadership.  This past fall semester I dug through hundreds of research journals, looking for content that could help explain how digital technologies are woven into the developmental experiences of college students.
While many researchers and practitioners are calling for such theory development, little has yet to be formally proposed or fully formed.  In this post, I will reveal what content I excavated.
For a traditional aged college student, identity exploration and commitment are ripe while obtaining their degree.  Considering that young adults are the highest users of social media, it is far beyond time to put theory, practice and research together to provide clarity of digital identity development.

This post will argue why digital technologies are not a secondary consideration of how identity is explored and declared, but central for teens and young adults.

Researchers Are Calling for a Response
Prominent college student development researchers, Torres, Jones and Renn (2009) explained that identity is socially constructed, based upon the sense of self and beliefs.  Further, these authors recognized the impact technology has on the college environment, specifically on student development.  “Because on-line information is unfiltered, not always of reliable quality, and not necessarily affirming of all identities, more research is needed to understand how technology can influence identity” (2009, p. 592).
Having these researchers recognize this connection and reality opens the door to future research of digital identity development, in addition to alteration of long-standing student development theories to match our 21st century digital age.  Mastrodicasa and Metellus (2003) echoed the belief that theory needs to be revised to include technology and social media influence on college student digital identity.

Identity Development is a Public & Social Process

Stone (1981) explains identity development as a public and social process, where one goes through three phases including:

  1. Announcement
  2. Placement
  3. Establishment

This cycle occurs when the expressed identity (announcement) is recognized and accepted by their environment (placement), then making it salient (establishment).
As social media is both public and social in nature, identity development processes can also take place online, going through these exact phases.
Proof of Digital Identity Development
Zhao, Grasmuck and Martin (2008) research confirmed a technologically mediated environment will allow for a new mode of identity production to emerge.  Online, students can try on different identities, sometimes even different from their ‘real life’ one (2008).
Goode (2010) called this their technology identity, which describes how personal experiences with technology and social (peer) expectations will lead to skills and perceptions of technology.  Describing the backbone of a technology identity,

Technology identity represents a blend of four areas of an individual’s belief system: beliefs about technology skills, beliefs about opportunities and constraints to use technology, beliefs about the importance of technology, and beliefs about one’s motivation to learn more about technology. (p. 498)

These authors recognize the power of Internet within identity development, but have found research to be lacking, especially with regard to formal theory that explains identity development through a digital framework.
Greenhow and Robelia (2009) qualitative study on low socioeconomic high school students showed that significant identity processes were occurring online.  As the authors explained, “We saw participants’ quest for self-discovery, identity exploration, and self-presentation playing out within their MySpace profiles” (p. 130).  Students were active on their profiles, showing they learned technology, expressed creativity, and gained communication skills.

 Yes you read that correctly, MySpace.

The challenge in published research is the amount of time it can take for some journals to be published, which is an obvious weakness of relying only on such research considering the rapid change of emerging technologies.

Online Self Expression Aiding Identity Development  

Gallant, Boone and Heap (2007) explained how strong communities online would support identity through self-expression.  These ideal elements of online communities included:

  • Different communication strategies, interactive creativity, selective hierarchy, identity posting, and artistic forms.

Using this framework, Greenhow and Robelia (2009) agreed Myspace met these elements, “Myspace seems to encourage identity formation and interest growth among these young users through its dynamically updating, Web-based media-sharing features” (p. 132).  However, what was also discovered was students have little awareness of the ethical or legal issues involved in online activity.  One can apply this research to other social media platforms, such as Facebook and will see similar results.
The Make-Up of Digital Identity 
Zhao, Grasmuck and Martin (2008) explored identity on Facebook.  The authors believe that the privacy tools on Facebook enable users to present and control self through images and messages, unlike one could do offline.  The researchers found a continuum of identity construction, through specific identity strategies and frequencies for expression on Facebook.
These included the visual self, cultural self and narrative self.

  • Visual included photos and messages, which accounted for the highest usage (95%) of expression.
  • Cultural expression was information such as interests or hobbies.  The most popular category for this was music.
  • Finally, narrative was noted in the About Me section, where a user writes in first person about themselves.  This was the lowest used category at 37%.

Applying this continuum, Zhao, Grasmuck and Martin (2008) explained identity expression on Facebook to follow a “show rather than tell” (p. 1826) model.  It was also discovered students in the study mostly kept their Facebook profiles open to the public, noted their sexual orientation, interest in dating, and overall followed cultural and society norms of behavior.
A Hoped For Self | Students Altering Digital Identity from Real Identity
Considering societal norms, what was not seen on Facebook profiles were traits commonly found in-person, including pessimism, apprehension, unspontaneous personas, nor academic, or religious values.
The identity constructs that were commonly documented included portraying self to be connected and popular, well-rounded with variety of interests/hobbies, and thoughtful such as posting quotes.  These were not the same behaviors observed in person.  As the authors explain,

 The Facebook identities were not the identities users established in the offline world, nor were they close the identities users would construct in anonymous online environments; rather, they were the hoped-for possible identities users would like to, but have not been able to, establish in the offline world. (Zhao, Grasmuck & Martin, 2008, p. 1828)

Further, based upon the environment, these results showed that college students may claim a different identity to better fit that situation, which include concepts of ‘true selves,’ ‘real selves’ and ‘hoped-for possible selves’ (2008).  This study suggests how a social media platform such as Facebook, can offer students an ability to present themselves, going around psychological barriers, and explore the idea of a ‘hoped-for possible self’ that may not be possible offline.
Zhao, Grasmuck and Martin (2008) called this phenomenon ‘digital selves,’ which are real identities that “serve to enhance the users’ overall self-image and identity claims and quite possibly increase their chances to connect in the offline world” (p. 1831).
Bringing this back to application to college student development in higher education, Torres, Jones and Renn (2009) called for a congruence of digital selves with real life, with the possibility that shifting expressions of online of self can be observed by the changing and choice of photos, posting of quotes, and membership in online groups.  Based upon this, these researchers declared,

Identity development may be observed through on-line expression of self, a potentially rich research approach” (2009, p. 595).

With this confirmation, student identity development can be explored through the lens of digital technologies and student leadership.
A Call for Holistic Identity | Online and Offline
Based upon the research listed here and my professional belief, digital communication technologies, including social media, greatly impact student identity development.  This is due to the nature platforms like Instagram, Twitter and Facebook that are socially based and public communication sources.  Individuals can choose how and what they share online, possibly splitting off into a ‘digital self’ or ‘hoped for self’ instead of their ‘true self.’
So where do Student Affairs educators start?

  • While we wait for additional research and theory, for student affairs practice we must prioritize developing college students who can be whole online and offline.
  • It starts with 1-1 conversations, based in care and not scare tactics.  Look to challenge students through reflection and application of how they live their lives both online and off.
  • Student groups can address and be trained on privacy settings, positing decision making and open discussions on how/if they life congruently online/off.
  • Using student leadership theories, digital realities can be addressed that further foster student reflection, understanding, strategy and advancement through a students social media presence.  Some of these models include the social change model and transformative leadership.
  • Next, peers can serve as priceless role models to each other, so find campus influencers that are examples of a digital student leaders and empower them further.
  • Finally, as a professional hold yourself to the same standards you encourage of your students.  Consider reviewing eight suggestions I have offered in a previous post on Student Affairs Leadership Online.

For all references cited in this post please refer here for all sources, plus others related to social media, student development, leadership and more.
Please find more posts on this topic below.

About Josie

I’m Dr. Josie Ahlquist—a digital engagement and leadership consultant, researcher, educator, and author. I’m passionate about helping people and organizations find purposeful ways to connect, engage, and tell their unique story. I provide consulting, executive coaching, and training for campuses, companies, and organizations that want to learn how to humanize technology tools and build effective and authentic online communities.

My blog and podcast have been recognized by EdTech Magazine, Inside Higher Ed and the Chronicle of Higher Education. My book, Digital Leadership in Higher Education, was published in 2020 and was listed as a #1 new release for college and university student life. I have been growing my consultancy since 2013 and am based in Los Angeles. When I’m not helping clients lead online, you might find me training for a triathlon, spoiling my nieces and nephews, or exploring with my husband and our rescue dogs in our new RV called Lady Hawk.

I’d love to connect! Find me on Twitter, Instagram, LinkedIn, and Facebook.

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Rebekah Tilley

Assistant Vice President, University of Iowa Center for Advancement

Rebekah Tilley is the assistant vice president of communication and marketing for the University of Iowa Center for Advancement (UICA). In that role she supports fundraising and alumni engagement efforts for the university, including its CASE Gold winning Iowa Magazine, and serves UICA in a variety of strategic communication efforts.

Previously she was the director of strategic communication for the University of Iowa Tippie College of Business, and the director of communication for the University of Kentucky College of Law. She is a Kentucky native and a proud alum of the University of Kentucky.

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