Summarized by UMB clinical psychology doctoral student, Stella Kanchewa, M.A.
Introduction: As adolescents strive for autonomy away from parents/guardians, they turn to peer relationships in order to meet social needs, and to establish an integrated sense of self and identity. Within these relationships, digital media, including use of text messaging, social networking sites and instant messaging, are increasingly becoming the dominant form of social exchange and communication among adolescents. Digital media use has become a way to maintain continuous connection and communication with friends, and researchers have become interested in the ways in which this new social context, with increasingly changing technologies and use related to these technologies, can shape adolescent identity development.
The current study explores the ways in which forms of communication across adolescents’ use of digital media (e.g., casual versus intimate conversations with friends), shapes adolescents’ sense of belonging and self-disclosure.
Method: Youth in the current study were part of a larger research project that included 2079 students, or approximately 80% of all senior students on the Island of Bermuda. Youth in Bermuda have access to similar media content and activities as youth in the U.S.; however, Bermudian youth report greater digital media usage and cell phone ownership relative to U.S. youth.
Using a qualitative research approach, the author administered semi-structured interviews to 32 youth selected from the larger sample by their teachers. These youth were between the ages of 13 and 18, with 66% identifying as black, 31% as white and 3% as other. The author was guided by the following research questions:
- How do adolescents of different ages and genders describe their use of various digital media technologies?
- What insights do their descriptions provide about the role of digital media in adolescents’ identity-related processes?
Results: Youth reported the ability to communicate with friends as the main reason for use of digital media.
Casual online exchanges: Youth referenced casual exchanges, occurring in both public (e.g., Facebook wall posts) and private (e.g., texting, instant messages) spaces, more often than intimate exchanges. These exchanges include:
- Instrumental conversations (e.g., going over homework, making plans for “hanging out”), most often communicated through cell phones followed by Facebook.
- Maintaining sense of connection (e.g., checking in about the day’s events, sharing jokes), most often communicated through Facebook followed by texting.
- Defining friendship groups (e.g., tagging close friends in Facebook pictures, sharing affection), but also connecting with casual acquaintances or peers who are not part of one’s close friendship group.
Intimate online exchanges: These exchanges involve self disclosure, and occur most often in private spaces (instant messages, cell phone, and private messages on Facebook). These exchanges include:
- Personal conversations (e.g., sharing feelings, struggles).
- Girls and younger adolescents engage in them more often than boys and older adolescents.
- Two key motivations relate to these type of exchanges:
- More comfort sharing personal feelings online than offline, particularly for girls and youth who identify as shy or quiet.
- Sense of more control over self-expression and opinion online relative to offline.
Conclusions: The findings from this qualitative study highlight the significance of youth’s use of digital media within their peer relationships, particularly youth’s sense of connection and intimacy within these relationships. Digital media is increasingly becoming a central context within which adolescents’ relationships are forged and strengthened, and sense of self is validated or invalidated in an ongoing manner via continual access to their peer network(s). It is interesting to consider how adolescents negotiate and integrate online versus offline connections. Similarly, it is also interesting to consider potential similarities and differences between the digital media connections adolescents forge with peers relative to adults (e.g., parents/guardians, mentors).
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