Youth Identity Formation

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Social Media Impact on Youth Identity Formation

Self-esteem and a sense of purpose are crucial elements in the identity development of adolescents. Research shows that this may be somewhat of a "chicken-and-egg question", as those with high self-esteem and sense of life purpose are less impacted by social media interactions, need less validation, and have already formed strong identities. Those that seek crave positive feedback on social media platforms are more likely to use these interactions in creating their identities.


An academic research article published in 2016 notes that recent research on teens and social media usage has primarily focused on identity expression rather than identity development. The research presents an extensive review of literature regarding "online contexts [and] substantially changed conditions for identity development," including identity exploration and online social interactions. The author's purpose was to study online identity from a developmental perspective, defining identity on a deeper level than simply disclosing hard facts such as true name and age. Research subjects were primarily in your targeted age group of 14-20; however, some literature included youth ranging in age from 11 through college. Additionally, the literature included in the review included a variety of identity markers, such as personality traits, identity expression, sexual identity, status, self-presentation, and role identity.

One study found that teens considered both the pros and cons of internet anonymity. The ability to express themselves anonymously and gauge feedback provided a valuable opportunity for identity exploration and long term identity development. However, the potential for cyberbullying and threats were also considered. The author notes that "anonymous contexts may contribute to identity development in ways that go beyond the more mainstream usage of [social networks], as they allow individuals to explore those aspects of identity that are not revealed in their everyday online and offline contexts. It may well be that it is precisely these contexts that are the most important in identity development".

Also of interest is a report showing that adolescents already possessing a solid sense of identity were willing to show their real selves on Facebook. This tells us that teens grappling with identity issues are more likely to use online platforms for identity experimentation, while those with a more coherent sense of identity have greater integration between different contexts.


In 2015, American adolescents (13 to 18 years old) were on social media platforms an average of 1 hour and 11 minutes per day, every day. "Identity development, aspirational development, and peer engagement" are areas that are highly linked to social media use. Teens use these platforms as a means of gaining peer approval, while searching for their own autonomy and sense of self.

One research article defines identity exploration among adolescents as the search for "a coherent sense of self," which occurs both on and offline. Social media can be used as a means of self-presentation - for example, by sharing pictures and interests. However, they may also use these tools to manage the perceptions that others have of them by carefully selecting what they choose to post. This self-exploration can help youth learn about themselves. One study determined that youth who communicated more often online developed a greater ability to clearly understand who they are from an identity perspective. The study concluded that social media can provide a good forum for practicing skills related to identity development, particularly in the area of self-presentation.

Additionally, social media has been found to be beneficial for teens struggling with learning disabilities or sexual identity. Research in this area shows that social media platforms increase the likelihood that such youth will find similarly challenged youth, making them feel less isolated and more confident.

An academic article published in 2016 stresses that adolescence is a critical time in development of "self-concept," though little is known about its correlation with online behavior. One hundred forty-eight youth aged 13-18 participated in a study of sense of self. Those with a stronger, more established sense of self were less likely to experiment with self-presentation and more likely to be genuine in their social media interactions than those with weaker perceptions of themselves. Younger teens tended towards inconsistent presentation online vs. offline. Youth who spent more time on Facebook and those with fewer Facebook friends were most likely to "present multiple versions of self while online".


An article published in March 2017 in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology further addresses your question. Though the full article is only available through purchase, highlights of the study conducted by Cornell researchers can be found in this campus publication. The study focuses on self-esteem, identity development, and an individual's sense of purpose as it relates to social media use. While this study includes adult participants, these findings may be relevant to teens as well.
The potential for positive responses (such as Facebook likes) is a significant incentive for using social media. Past research demonstrates that, in general, people with low self-esteem are more sensitive to negative comments made by others, both on and offline. Backing up this conclusion is a study by Facebook researchers who found that those with low self-esteem are more driven by the number of likes (or lack of them) than more confident individuals. Newer research (which include adults), indicates that social media feedback is based on both self-esteem and sense of purpose.


In two research studies with a combined pool of 342 teen participants, researcher tested "purpose in life as a source of self-directed ... motivation and predicted that having greater purpose would lessen sensitivity to social media feedback". In both studies, the relationship between likes and self-esteem were found to be less important for those with greater purpose.


To wrap up, self-esteem and a sense of purpose are crucial elements in the identity development of adolescents. Teens with low self-esteem and those who lack a sense of purpose are more likely to experiment with identity expressions on social media platforms.