The art of re-invention

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Social media and the online world allows students to consider the way they are perceived much more clearly, and means they can re-invent how they are viewed by their friends and others. Karen Sullivan considers the implications of this modern trend.

Gone are the days when teenagers are cast in a mould and forced to carry reputations and labels. Instead, social media offers an opportunity for kids to re-invent themselves and to present to their online community the aspects of their personalities that create a positive image. 

There is, in fact, a wealth of research into the concept of self-presentation in social media, and it’s all quite fascinating. For example, Mehdizadeh (2010) found that Facebook users write descriptions that enhanced and promoted themselves in order to receive positive feedback from the public. Gosling, et al, found that students tend to show a type of presentation that is interpreted generally as “emotionally stable” and “open to new experiences”.

This may be fairly obvious, but it is important to consider the implications. Social media networks allow adolescents to “try out” different identities and, in response to the way other people react to them, decide to integrate these identities into their self-concept (Schlenker, 1986). Adolescents continually compare the ways they disclose and present themselves in order to validate their opinions, attitudes and values. At a time of important cognitive and social development, this could be critical.

While peer pressure has always moulded identity to some extent, social media can encourage adolescents to re-invent themselves entirely, in order to be “friended” and “liked” and to create a positive, popular and acceptable persona. This in turn affects self-esteem and wellbeing, as the feedback that adolescents receive on their self-disclosures and presentation is used to validate themselves (Leary & Kowalski, 1990).

What’s more, self-disclosure (telling others about themselves either for the purposes of self-promotion, establishing new friendships or gaining support) is markedly different online than it is in person, with reduced non-verbal cues, control over time/pace of the interaction, and sometimes anonymity.

Studies have found that teenagers ask far more personal questions and disclose many more intimate details about themselves, thus potentially opening themselves up to ridicule or bullying. Once again, this can impact enormously upon social development, as well as the development of identity. 

Equally, however, the ability to disclose intimate information is fundamental to the development of friendships and romantic relationships, and if it’s easier to do online, then it can be beneficial.

Perhaps surprisingly, research has found that regular online communication seems to be beneficial for teenagers. They have a relatively safe environment in which to try out different identities, and even experiment with sexual identity; it is an easy way to meet new people and provides a social buffer. Harter (1999) found that the need for social interaction is never as great as it is during adolescence, and believes that online communication offers opportunities to fulfil these needs.

Where it all can go wrong, however, is when teenagers put too much emphasis upon the validation of others, and manipulate their online personae to become someone with values, views and traits that are directly oppositional to their own. Furthermore, when they become too dependent upon feedback, they can fall victim to a new type of peer pressure that can be damaging in the long run and result in poor self-esteem.

So, do you feel your students are more self-confident since the advent of social media? Do they engage more easily in personal relationships, including those with the opposite sex? Please get in touch. In my next column, we’ll look at ways to encourage students to use social media productively to give themselves the best chance for future education and employment.

  • Karen Sullivan is a best-selling author, psychologist and childcare expert. Email kesullivan@aol.com


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