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Growing up digital: How the Internet affects teen identity

This is the final story in a three-part series on the ways new technology is impacting kids and teens. Read part one: How digital culture is changing the way kids play. Read part two: How digital screens are changing the way we read.

When British 14-year-old Hannah Smith turned to popular social networking site Ask.fm in July 2013, she wanted reassurance.

Stressed out from studying for exams and anxious about the return of eczema that made her feel ugly, Smith opened up about her feelings on the site, which allows users to pose questions others can respond to anonymously.

The responses came in rapid succession. Anonymous posters urged Smith to cut herself and drink bleach. One even said, “Do us all a favour n kill ur self."

When Smith did just that a month later, her father blamed the anonymity of Ask.fm's commenters for his daughter's death. The family demanded action against the site, and Smith's death made international headlines about the effects of cyberbullying.

What detectives found was arguably much more tragic — that Smith sent the hateful messages to herself, hoping her friends would rally in her defense.

While cases like Smith’s are rare, Smith was doing what most teenagers do: seeking identity validation from friends and strangers, often via social media. As a new generation comes of age online, the Internet could be affecting how they form their identity.

Catherine Steiner-Adair, a psychologist and author of “The Big Disconnect: Protecting Childhood and Family Relationships in the Digital Age,” says the kind of outside affirmation Smith sought online is a vital part of how teens form identity.

“The need for validation and confirmation that you’re OK is so huge,” Steiner-Adair said. “Parents often say, 'How could you go on a site where people can anonymously respond to whatever your question is: Am I cute? Am I fat?' But we’re forgetting what it means to be a teenager when we say things like that.”

Social media allow kids to broadcast everything while connecting them to experiences they might not have encountered a generation ago. But it also opens teens up to exponential ridicule or an amplified feeling of invisibility that can influence the perceptions they have of themselves.

According to market research data released this year from GFK, a German market research institute, the amount of time teens spend online has grown 37 percent since 2012, to about four hours a day. In a 2010 survey from the Girl Scout Research Institute, 74 percent of girls said they felt their peers used social media to "make themselves look cooler than they are," and 41 percent said that also describes them.

A 2010 study from York University found that people with lower self-esteem spent more time online and posted more "self-promotional" content to sites like Facebook.

Steiner-Adair says that while technology changed how teens seek and get feedback about identity, teen behavior is much the same.

“Kids are always looking at each other, comparing themselves to each other. The same thing that’s going on in the halls is going on online,” Steiner-Adair said. “The difference for teenagers today is that there’s an endless supply of people to whom they can compare themselves.”

Online vs. real-time identities

Experts like Steiner-Adair and Dr. David Greenfield say the fact that many teens view their online and real-time identities as identical can be a recipe for disaster.

The problem is impulse control, says Greenfield, an assistant professor of psychiatry at the University of Connecticut School of Medicine and founder of the Center for Internet and Technology Addiction. He says that because teens' brains aren't fully developed, they don't have the impulse control to understand the damage they can do online.

"This group doesn't differentiate. They see their real-time identity and their online identity as identical when in fact they're not," Greenfield said. "Along with that, there's now no delay between the urge to do something and the ability to broadcast it instantaneously. They do and say things online that they ordinarily wouldn't do because it doesn't feel real to them. But what you do in cyberspace follows you into real space."

When the online and real-time identities don't match — or when a hoard of anonymous commenters say they don't — it can get dangerous, Steiner-Adair said.

"Kids spend a lot of time crafting this identity that you hope people will respond favorably to," Steiner-Adair said. “When they feel desperate for feedback or curious in a risky way, social networking sites like Ask.fm play very much on the vulnerability of teens' and preteens’ desire to not only know what people think of them but their hopes that they’re seen as cool and their hunger for approval."

The struggle to differentiate

Technology can also make it more difficult to form an identity. There are more versions of "self" than ever before, which gives kids who may already be struggling to figure out who they are even more to juggle. In an interview with NPR, media theorist and author Douglas Rushkoff explained the feeling in a term he coined: “digiphrenia.”

“ ‘Digiphrenia’ is the experience of trying to exist in more than one incarnation of yourself at the same time. There's your Twitter profile, your Facebook profile, your email inbox,” Rushkoff said. “All of these sort of multiple instances of you are operating simultaneously and in parallel. And that's not a really comfortable position for most human beings."

In their effort to individualize on the Web, teens use different accounts in different ways, as researcher Katie Davis found out while co-authoring "The App Generation: How Today's Youth Navigate Identity, Intimacy and Imagination in a Digital World."

"There's this interesting dichotomy online where there's an emphasis toward identity consolidation and having this crystallized identity that is well-formed for many different audiences versus an increased opportunity to present different identities," Davis said, explaining that teens often adapt their online identities almost like creating a brand.

The focus on the external image detracts from the creation of a true identity, which Davis says takes serious meditation. "They're tailoring and promoting almost a branded 'self.' If you're all of your time projecting an identity externally, it crowds out the time you have for internal reflection."

The kind of self-promotion or expression varies depending on the network.

"If they're on Facebook, their identities are available for many different audiences to see. So that restricts how they can express themselves because they have to make sure it's OK for a wide audience," Davis said.

The natural urge to seek approval online can create a dependency on the Internet, Greenfield said. Because teens are digital natives, they have a higher likelihood for addiction. He says you can see it in the way teens handle their cellphones.

"[The phone] is so much more than a way of communicating," Greenfield said. "They would no more be out and about without a phone than they'd go without underwear. It’s become part of their identity on a social and cultural level."

Davis and Gardner call it "app-dependent behavior," and while it's rare, it's also a recent development. For example, if a young person has a homework assignment, he or she might go online to get the facts, but Davis said an app-dependent person would also look for analysis of those facts to use in a book report rather than thinking about it themselves.

The same sort of app-dependency rears itself in relationships, where some people rely on talking online rather than in person. Others might depend on Facebook input to make decisions as small as which movie to see or even to resolve personal or moral dilemmas.

"Their online lives and offline lives are both real to them, and they do move fluidly between the two," Davis said. "But I think some young people who become very highly involved in an online community may have a harder time integrating that identity into the real world."

Digital role modeling

The most important tool kids have in their favor is a good parent, the experts say.

"A lot of parents think that because they (don't) understand tech, they throw up their hands. You don’t have to know (exactly how technology works) to set the right kinds of limits," Steiener-Adair said.

Parents must be good digital role models, Davis said.

"Parents are very powerful models for their kids," Davis said. "They see how tied their parents are to technology. It’s really not about the technology; it’s really about how we use it and how dependent we are on technology."

Steiner-Adair came to a similar conclusion while researching her book when she interviewed 1,000 kids ages 4-18 about how much their parents used digital devices. She said she consistently heard from children of every single age that they often felt ignored, frustrated, sad, lonely or mad when vying for their parents' attention or help.

“I talked to one young woman who told me, 'They just asked me about my first semester in college for two seconds and then they stopped to make a dinner reservation,’ ” Steiner-Adair said. “This is not a way we want our children to feel. They do need to know that their parents cherish them.”

Edutopia urges parents to be sympathetic to teens' worries and questions and be familiar with which sites are popular among kids in different age groups.

To help control kids' impulses, Steiner-Adair says, first teach kids how to use the cameras on their phones appropriately rather than for humiliation. Treat devices at sleepovers the same as alcohol: Lock them up or put them out of sight. Make kids understand the power they wield with a smartphone.

"They’re playing in a different sandbox. Kids are being kids with a tool that has far more powerful impact than they understand," Steiner-Adair said. "Parents are feeling understandably overwhelmed by all the challenges technology brings with it. At the same time, this is the age in which we are parenting."

Read part one: How digital culture is changing the way kids play.

Read part two: How digital screens are changing the way we read.

Email: chjohnson@deseretnews.com Twitter: ChandraMJohnson