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Developing self in the digital age

Yet another article on Twitter by an expert in something (like authoring or marketing books) who’s new to Twitter ran in the New York Times this week. I think it’s much more interesting to read articles about Twitter by anybody (not necessarily an expert) who’s not new to Twitter – in other words, someone who knows that Twitter use is highly individual and not all trivial pursuits, celebrity watching, social marketing, or the most common dismissal: narcissistic self-absorption or -promotion.

But I’m glad I read this one – “I Tweet Therefore I Am,” by Peggy Orenstein, who is, in fact, newly using Twitter to promote her forthcoming book, for its interesting discussion about identity formation in the digital age. Orenstein writes that “the expansion of our digital universe – Second Life, Facebook, MySpace, Twitter – has shifted how we construct identity.” Then she describes MIT sociologist Sherry Turkle’s forthcoming book, Alone Together, as saying that “among young people especially, [Turkle] found that the self was increasingly becoming externally manufactured rather than internally developed: a series of profiles to be sculpted and refined in response to public opinion.”

I appreciated Turkle’s 2006 essay about “the tethered self” because it offered some important insights for parents of digital-tech users (see “Parenting & the digital drama overload”), but the above statement – if Orenstein is right about Turkle’s book – really bothered me. I, like many parents, do think young people need more than ever to understand the importance of balance in their lives, including breaks from the steady flow of interaction with friends via cellphone texts, posts to walls, Webcam chat, etc. (remember the “Jessi Slaughter” story?). But merely using the word “manufactured” in relation to the self (instead of “developed” or “formed,” for example) prejudices the discussion, implying that our children are forming identity entirely differently now because of the technologies they use just seemed to me to go too far.

Sociality part of self development

So I asked social media researcher danah boyd if she’s seeing unprecedented other-directed identity formation in the young people she talks with in her field research. She replied that “the self was never constructed independent of a social context. There is no internally developed self divorced from social reality. The self is always socially constructed. The difference today,” boyd added, “is the mediating elements. Kids today are more physically isolated than ever before in history. Rather than having a bazillion siblings, cousins, neighbors running around with you, you turn to friends of choice [in digital media]. That’s different. But people were always part of the picture.” Of course. The big story always in our faces is technology or the shift to social media, so we forget that identity formation was always a blend of internal reflection and outer inputs; we just mustn’t forget that reflection and independent thought are important too.

boyd also pointed me to an important overview of modern identity formation by David Buckingham at the University of London’s Centre for the Study of Children. He explains how the process has many inputs. Putting it in the first person, he writes that, while we struggle to find our “true self” (and certainly this doesn’t happen only in our youth), we “also seek multiple identifications with others, on the basis of social, cultural, and biological characteristics, as well as shared values, personal histories, and interests. On one level, I am the product of my unique personal biography. Yet who I am (or who I think I am) varies according to who I am with, the social situations in which I find myself, and the motivations I may have at the time, although I am by no means entirely free to choose how I am defined,” he writes in his introduction to “Youth, Identity, and Digital Media,” a special journal issue from MIT Press. Today, all this identity formation and exploration is naturally happening online as well as offline, on whatever.

Other causes of concern

But if we do have concerns about digital technology’s effects on our children, it may help to remember there are other conditions fueling everybody’s unease these days. Buckingham points to “globalization, the decline of the welfare state, increasing social mobility, greater flexibility in employment, insecurity in personal relationships” (I would add a 24/7, highly commercial, sexualized media environment). He continues: “All these developments are contributing to a sense of fragmentation and uncertainty, in which the traditional resources for identity formation are no longer so straightforward or so easily available.” He also tells how, as a society, we’ve come to think of “teens,” the adolescent part of child development, and how our thinking (informed by the fields of psychology, sociology, etc.) is changing.

More progressive view of children

The new view of children sees them as “significant social actors in their own right, as ‘beings,’ and not simply as ‘becomings’ who should be judged in terms of their projected futures,” as Buckingham put it. This reminds me of the introduction to a book I have found extremely useful, Hanging Out, Messing Around, and Geeking Out: Kids Living and Learning with New Media (MIT Press, 2010), where the authors write, “Adults often view children in a forward-looking way, in terms of developmental ‘ages and stages’ of what they will become rather than as complete beings ‘with ongoing lives, needs and desires’.” Our opportunity as parents is to consider this different view of our children, one that actually gives them a voice, encourages civic engagement – empowers them to be active agents for good in their own experiences online (and offline). This is protection from manipulation and group think and powerful identity formation!

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