iConstruct: How youths construct their identities through social media
At the dining table, our plates bore the remnants of the delicious meal, and my parents, siblings and I launched into our habitual post-dinner discussion. My younger sister spoke of a college friend she’d re-connected with; a kindled smile appeared on her face as she described this. Intrigued by this mysterious character who’d put a smile her face, my husband pulled out his phone and searched her on Instagram. “This one?” he asked pointing to an account as he showed her.
With a new name acting as the stimulus, we cursorily look up individuals on social media, akin to a knee-jerk reaction. We then channel our inner detectives scrolling through their profiles, searching them on different platforms and using their available posts and activities as primary evidence upon which we base our assumptions. A social media presence has a profound effect on the development of our identities. In today’s social networking era, how a youth portrays themselves on these platforms not only allows them to present themselves to the world but, in turn, also impacts on their own self-identity.
Whilst the topic of building an online identity is vast and can open up endless avenues for discussion, the chosen areas of online social identity, the use of language and online residency are discussed below:
1) Online social identity
Let’s take a second to think about this: The online groups you become a part of, the kind of pages you follow, the people you interact with, the ones you collaborate with, the posts you save and like are all just examples of how social media use can mould your identity.
This can be explained through social identity theory (Tajfel & Turner, 1979), a longstanding theory in social psychology. Social identity here is defined as an individual’s self-concept which has derived from their real or perceived membership of social groups. That is, individuals assume the identity of the group that they become members of, beginning to conform to the norms and standards of this particular group.
Through social media, youths develop an identity based on their actions. Becoming a self-proclaimed professional such as a “food blogger”, “influencer”, fitness instructor, home-baker or brand ambassador are just some of these. Since there’s no training or certification that one needs to acquire such an identity, it’s the masses of friends and followers that promote and shape youths into these identities. Mobile technology has further enabled this, allowing youths to produce narratives of their lives that they choose to present and choose to remember, with just a few taps.
2) The use of language
Individuals’ use of language also communicates their identities. Individuals may choose to show their cultural roots by posting in their heritage language– which can easily be translated with the “Translate” feature available on several platforms. Moreover, the opportunity to present one’s self visually on platforms such as Instagram, Snapchat, Tiktok, etc. surpasses the barriers of verbal communication. This allows individuals the means to express themselves creatively, for example, through dance or with the use of colours; using pastel colours can create a warm and nurturing perception of the individual whilst using black repeatedly can make the individual appear uninviting. Through such artistic expression, youths can construct an impressionistic presence beyond words.
3) Establishing an online residency
In today’s generation, youths are developing a self that resides online as they integrate technology into their day-to-day lifestyle for personal and professional functions; their digital presence serves as an extension of their human bodies. In the lockdown itself, we’ve seen several events take place in small numbers, with loved ones attending virtually.
An online residency entails virtual meetings replacing in-person interactions, the sharing of information and resources via social media platforms, storing memories or documents online in the form of photos, videos, creatives, using calendars and other similar features to keep a record of birthdays, milestones, events, etc., using a profile as a professional portfolio and using social media as tools for digital marketing to name a few. Indubitably, the youth are increasingly depending on these platforms, shedding traditional ways of performing these functions.
It’s not all rosy…
Although social media present with a vast array of opportunities, online social constructions can also negatively impact on the individual’s self-worth. Firstly, seeing others’ profiles and actions online can lead to social comparisons– oftentimes leading to a sense of inferiority, FOMO (fear of missing out) and jealousy in the observer. Moreover, whilst we may be aware of this, we tend to momentarily forget that individuals may paint a rosy picture online, choosing to emphasise the positive aspects of their lives and hiding the flaws, difficulties and distress. This aligns itself with the hyper-personal model (Walther, 1996), which suggests the exaggeration of certain features to make one’s self more desirable. For the individual who is falsely promoting a positive identity online, they too can feel incongruent or inadequate in some way.
An identity that was once constructed and recorded by an older generation and recounted to the younger ones– through albums, story-telling or home videos –has now transformed such that the youth are creating and posting memories online without significant adult interference. Children and youths have acquired a level of control that they didn’t have before. Due to the arrival of social media, an unprecedented degree of independence and autonomy has been seen amongst youth in the development of their identities.
Freud referred to “screen memories” in his work as a form of blocking of an unpleasant event, thought or perception as a defence against traumatic or intolerable childhood memories. Today, youths have been creating modern screen memories for themselves– pun intended – as they build their own narratives and identities online.