Young People and Digital Identities

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In this paper I will discuss that digital mediums provide a multitude of frameworks that are beneficial to the development of identity in young people. Throughout my analysis of concepts that affect identity I will apply sociological theories for the rehearsal, experimentation and construction of identity in digital settings. First it is salient to briefly address digital identity, citizenship and the synergy this presents to the real world. I will follow with analysis of socialisation, networking and the opportunities digital media provides in the development of cultural understandings. I will continue with an examination of sexual/romantic understandings for young people presented in multiple facets of digital media. Then I will note the risks of negative influences found in digital spheres and the concerns of privacy in this digital age. Finally, I will apply recognition that the development of comprehension and understanding of digital frameworks creates a digital literacy with significant real-world and digital applications.

Digital Identity and Citizenship:

In addressing identity development through digital mediums, it is important to clarify various recognitions of the concept. Digital identity can reflect the literal representation of an individual in a digital realm i.e. their profiles or avatars on social media or in game worlds (Toth & Anderson-Priddy 2019, p. 18). This pertains to how you are presented which may or may not reflect the identity of the individual in the real.  As Hite, Voelker and Robertson (2014, p. 22) studied, digital realms provide access to anonymity, new behaviours can develop as there is seen to be less chance of consequences. Digital citizenship however represents an individual’s behaviour and interactions in a larger digital culture, representative of norms and values to that area (Choi 2016, p. 565). Such moral recognitions of “good” or “bad” digital citizenry can be applied by recognizing behavioural trends online. The value of digital identity and citizenry is that real-world identity construction can be developed by aligning your digital representation and behaviour towards aspired behaviour or by experimenting with behaviour that would be considered deviant in the real-world. As such digital media not only represents a medium from which to consume information but an entirely new sphere of socialisation in which real-world sociological theories of identity development still apply (Milenkova, Peicheva & Marinov 2019, p. 21).

In approaching how digital mediums create new possibilities of developing identities for young people, experimental play and role-play are immensely beneficial. Richard (2017, pp. 26-43) notes that in the development of identity, experimental play and discovery are key activities for young people, and digital environments facilitate this. Taylor et al (2013, p. 75) supports that engaging in specific role-based play allows young people to understand greater sociological concepts and develop self-awareness. This is supported by the work of McGlynn-Stewart et al (2019, pp. 40-54) that saw a greater sense of identity develop in kindergarteners over a two-year study of role-based digital learning. Digital environments allow young people unprecedented access to mediums that facilitate experimental activities and can be utilized by the user to perform in any role.

Digital Socialisation:

Through exposure to digital environments young people gain access to a more dynamic and expansive network of global culture and socialisation. The democratic nature of digital mediums allows for unparalleled communication and development of both traditional and evolved social skills (Hurlburt 2012, pp. 6-8). Tung and Deng (2012, p. 174) showed that the validation of social media profiles and posts, through “likes” or emoticons, teaches and reinforces emotional validity and responses (creating a clear image connection between a funny post and a laughing emoji). This emotional comprehension of digital text is an evolution of socialisation for a generation that share their lives digitally for validation and acceptance. Traditional language is also reinforced and developed for young people in the use of digital mediums. Acronyms and abbreviations speed up digital communication yet “Grammar Nazi’s” reinforce proper punctuation and spelling, allowing for real world literacy development and utilisation (Amin et al 2016, p. 99).

As discussed by Johnson et al (2016, pp. 126-141), young people use role models to develop an understanding of self through aspiration. In digital realms role-models can be found in profiles or avatars, representing what to aspire to and reinforcing real-world life goals in how a profile/avatar is presented. In a traditional recognition; profiles that portray educational institutions and places of employment reinforce life course markers for young people as well as the shared photos of success and enjoyment linked to such profiles (Ellison, Wohn & Greenhow 2019, p, 519). In an evolved sense, young people have access to increased tiers of what to consider as role-model behaviour when appraising digital representations. Through analysis of profiles not only can they view markers for “real” aspirations, but they can also recognize a digital presence to aspire to. Thus, young people can desire to digitally emulate and behave in a similar fashion to someone for self-improvement. This can be seen in following similar pages, posting similar content or adopting writing styles or trends (Aran-Ramspott 2018, p.71), developing not only a sense of self but practical skill sets that apply to the real world. This isn’t limited to social media behaviour but can be seen in video game worlds, not simply in attempts to become a better player but to become a better citizen in these game worlds. This takes the form of assisting others, providing feedback, contributing to in-game communities, which all can be said to valid in the real-world.

Beyond using digital mediums to aid identity development in veins of literacy and social comprehension, economies and reward systems are used to validate young people in digital realms. Mentioned above is the use of “likes” as a digital validation of not only real-world behaviour but digital performance too. Reward systems such as in-game achievements or trophies that gift rewards to young people create a causal link of task completion and validation (Cruz, Hanus & Fox, 2017, p. 516).  Wilke (2016, pp. 116-136) studied the use of in-game currency systems reflecting real-world counterparts, developing recognition towards sociological conceits of class, income, prestige and creating a “general intellect”. Wilke’s study also supported that expenses and markets found in-game can help prepare young people to capitalist values of the real world. However, this does represent a danger towards young people who may not fully grasp the difference between game world economies and the real-world. This is particularly dangerous for young people with the rise of micro-transactions found in videogames and apps (McCaffrey 2019, p. 2). Micro-transactions are when real world currency is used to pay for in-game/app content, presenting a danger if a guardian’s financial details are automatically linked to the service and purchases are made in error.

Sexuality and Gender:

A possibility for greater social and personal understanding is enabled in digital mediums that allow for consequence free role-play with what the real-world would consider as deviant. In the relatively consequence free settings of digital worlds, young people can come to understand non-desirable, or unsupported behaviour beyond simply being told it is “bad”. Shaw (2012, pp. 67-89) provided an ethnographic study of “gaymer” communities, individuals that recognise their sexuality and their gaming interest to be a unified element of their identity. These communities discussed how experimenting with their sexuality in digital worlds aided real-world acceptance and how LGBT+ depictions in such worlds helped them develop. Digital worlds present a safe place for young people in how they want to experiment with their identity, creating an outlet that previous generations suffered without. Danet (1998, pp. 129-159) shows that this transcends LGBT+ communities and allows for gender education by process of curiosity; “Men are curious about what it is like to be a woman or seek the attention that female-presenting individuals typically receive. Women want to avoid being harassed sexually or to feel free to be more assertive”.  This access to a safe environment for personal development coupled with networking capabilities to communicate with similar individuals is of immense benefit to young people in feeling confidant with their identity as they progress into adulthood.

Romance and Sex:

Young people, in accessing digital mediums, have access to a range of streamlined dating and hookup services. That isn’t to say that people are experiencing romance or sexual activity at a younger age but rather the environment of human relationships has altered (Sanchez. Munoz-Fernandez & Ortega-Ruiz 2017). Young people now have access to such services as Tindr that allows for convenient relationship development from a smartphone. Albury and Byron (2016, pp. 1-10) studied the perception young, same-sex attracted Australians had for digital romance and hook-ups and found it allowed for efficient time management, discretion and opportunities for networking that may not happen organically. Albury & Byron’s data supports that young people’s involvement or simple awareness of digital romance and hook-ups develops self-acceptance, boundaries, romantic interest and emotional comprehension. This access also allows for comprehension of the new era of human connection that digital mediums present which young people will use as they develop.

Liquid love is a concept that has been applied to the culture surrounding relationships via digital mediums. Bauman (2003 p. 1-30) offered that digital mediums “liquidated” the known stability of traditional courtship and romance. However, this evolution towards a culture of flexible, less static relationships shouldn’t not be seen negatively but rather as a result of where history has led us. Young people as they develop do not need to be shaped in the mould of fulfilling the nuclear family stereotype nor conform to sexist mentalities that promiscuity is deviant (Fahs & Munger 2015, p. 189). Utilising digital mediums for romance or sex enables more control for the individual and can allow for personal allocation of romantic/sexual activity. Agency of identity construction is enabled in digital mediums as individuals can choose to focus primarily on their career or education with little interest in developing a romantic connection, they can still enjoy physical contact of non-committal, consensual intercourse. This isn’t to say there isn’t access to such in the real-world but digital mediums facilitate this vein of networking for young people and adults.


It would be ignorant to perceive digital mediums to be flawless in the construction of identity in young people, thus risks must be known and understood. As in the real-world, young people can be exposed to harassment and bullying in digital mediums. A pervasive factor of this is that this negativity can follow the individual beyond the confines of the schoolyard or workplace, to be present at all times or locations (Schultz-Krumbhol et al 2016, p. 147). This reflects an increased vulnerability for young people through their digital identity into the real-world. Nor is victimhood the only outcome for young people, as harassment or bullying may be behaviour that develops as deviance develops in the real world. Online “trolls” or the act of “trolling” is a digital identity that individuals adopt to garner reactions from others born from inflammatory, ignorant or abusive communication. Phillips (2011) studied that troll culture can be taken quite seriously by participants with certain rules and prescribed taboos surrounding the individuals. The study also clearly noted that this was only acceptable behaviour in online realms, the trolls would not behave as such in the real world showing a development of deviant digital citizenry and identity.


A significant shaper in the development of young people’s identities is how the notion of privacy has evolved with digital mediums. The need for immediacy in sharing and validating opinions and activities over social media has created an environment that exposes traditionally private conceits (Salter 2016, p. 2724). Residence, employment, hobbies and other personal details are either explicitly shared or inferred from analysis. Through digital mediums young people not only expose themselves to a greater extent than previous generations but have access to significantly more information about their peers. However shared information is not only accessed by peers but corporations and institutions by means of “big data”. Big Data refers to all the behaviour of an individual in digital mediums that can be used to facilitate a market (Holmes 2017, p. 75). This data tracking is not just of explicitly given information shared openly but in statistical analysis of subtle online use. Time spent on web pages, where your cursor rested, what ads you viewed, your search history, the location of services sought, political preference, the list goes on and can be utilised in order to sell you products or predict your behaviour. This form of digital identity can be unknown to the individual and yet can still be developed through access of digital mediums. This only reflects the legal nature of privacy being invaded, digital mediums represent a risk of data being taking illegally by any individual with the skillset or even automated algorithms.

Digital literacy:

In the development of a digital identity, young people develop a digital literacy that previous generations struggle to attain. Through the exposure to the above issues and the framework of digital realms they acquire a comprehensive understanding of the behaviours of the digital. This extends beyond simple skills of typing or program maintenance but a thorough understanding of how and why digital cultural trends affect themselves and others (Buckingham 2015, p. 22). Digital literacy can allow for the recognition of trolls, how to rapidly process new inputs of evolving apps, how to recognize markers of etiquette in online social spaces and more importantly recognize when others fail in these regards (amongst many other skills). This distinction can be seen in the stereotypical division technical ability between previous generations and newer ones (Hargatti & Dobransky 2017, p. 195). Individuals of the baby-boomer and previous generations struggle to adapt to the dynamism of digital technology having experienced primary learning through analogue or printed mediums. It is through a development of digital literacy that young people can synergise their identity, digital identity and digital citizenry for a greater sense of self and the world around them in both digital and actual reality.


In recognising the current and longitudinal presence of digital media in society and the inability to avoid it we must come to terms with how it affects who we are. Particularly in the case of young people and future generations that will be exposed to and affected by their interactions with digital media. In this paper I have discussed that digital mediums can facilitate in the construction and rehearsal of numerous factors of identity development in young people. I have also analysed some of the risks inherit to the presentation and representation of self in digital mediums. Whilst the risks of bullying, harassment and the development of deviant behaviour in digital mediums is present, it is not of significant difference to the negatives of deviance in the real-world. This does not excuse of forgive the presence of harassment but rather is representative that human fault will pervade any medium in which there is discourse. The unprecedented risk to an individual’s privacy is a genuine concern, however information trafficking is not inherently bad, as mass analysis of digital trends can lead to a macro understanding of digital cultures (Marr 2015, p. 105-155). Even with valid concerns for privacy, a developed digital literacy is the best answer and as young people learn through digital mediums, they will be better outfitted to safeguard themselves. With such knowledge of such digital mediums can offer opportunities towards the development of gender, sexuality, romance, sex, comprehension, literacy, economy, culture and many other dynamically evolving facets of self. Exposure and interaction with digital mediums overall benefits the development of a synergised identity construction in young people that reinforces awareness of the self and the world around them, in the real and the digital.

Word Count: 2612

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