iSelf: How Online Identity May Indicate Bigger Problems In Your Teens

Constructing an Online Identity

Conventional wisdom tells us people pretend to be other than who they are online. The stereotype of a sexual predator, for instance, is an adult male masquerading as an adolescent in order to groom youth (for the real story on this, download our e-book).

New research conducted by the Girl Scouts indicates that many teens are the ones actually reinventing themselves, though for less sinister purposes. In a 2010 survey of more than 1,000 girls about how they portrayed themselves online:

  • 74% of girls agree that “most girls my age use social networking sites to make themselves look cooler than they really are,” and 41% admit this describes them.
  • Most girls portray themselves as more well-rounded in person than online.
  • Girls with low self-esteem are more likely to admit that their social networking image doesn’t match their in-person image (33% compared to 18% of girls with high self-esteem).
  • Interestingly, 56% agree that social networks help them feel closer and more connected with their friends, but only 30% think that social networks have increased the quality of their relationships.

One of the end results of this study is this: On a site like Facebook, girls may pretend to be someone they’re not. As the researchers explain, “Many girls, regardless of their level of confidence, view social networking as a safe forum for ‘trying on’ alternate versions of themselves. Girls may portray themselves in a different or more extreme way than  they do in person.”

The Role of Self-Esteem

Girl surfing the internet with feet up

The big question, then, is “Why?” Why would kids pretend to be someone they’re not?

“Trying on” different personalities is just one explanation. Other recent research suggests that self-esteem may also play a role.

In a recent study, Soraya Mehdizadeh, a psychology undergraduate at York University, found that those lower in self-esteem spent more time on the site and filled their pages with more self-promotional content. Mehdizadeh asks, “Are these really accurate representations of the individual or are they merely a projection of who the individual wants to be?”

As the Girl Scouts point out, 33% of girls with low self-esteem admit to being different online than in real life.

Researcher danah boyd, meanwhile, notes that some of the harassing and bullying questions posted on Formspring, which appeared to be anonymous, were actually “written by the owner while logged into their own account. In other words, there are teens out there who are self-harassing by ‘anonymously’ writing mean questions to themselves and then publicly answering them.”

Boyd’s explanations for this behavior—that it may be a cry for help, or they want to look cool, or they’re trying to trigger compliments—can be extended to other forms of social media. If low self-esteem is linked to frequent Facebook use, it is reasonable to posit that these factors play into boyd’s findings about bullying on Formspring—or that people would choose to respond to such questions at all. Regardless, the links between social networking and self-identity (especially in those with low self-esteem) are clear, though they may play out differently in different technologies.

A Long, Dark Road

There are many who would argue (perhaps rightly) that such experimentation with self-identity online is a normal part of adolescence. However, another study reveals a disturbing correlation linking time online to depression among teens. According to the study:

Among male teens, heavy users and non-users were both around one-third more likely to have a high depression score, compared to “regular” users. Among girls, heavy Internet users had an 86% greater chance of depression, while non-users had a 46% greater likelihood compared to regular users.

This study was conducted independently from the studies on self-esteem and Internet use, making it impossible to say that all high-frequency users of social networks by default are either depressed or have self-esteem issues. But heavy Internet use and a discrepancy between an online persona and your child’s actual personality may indicate deeper issues for your child.

What You Can Do

  • Take a close look at how your teens portray themselves online. This means more than a cursory glance at their photos or status updates. Try to look for overall trends. Does your shy daughter tend to act sexy or outrageous online? Does your son emphasize his love for football and mask his musical talent? These behaviors may indicate personal insecurities.
  • Similarly, make sure you know the people who interact with your kids the most online. Try to do so without judging. Perhaps the kids writing provocative comments (sexual, bullying, etc.) are themselves pretending to be someone different online.
  • Encourage real-life interactions over online friendships. 92% of participants in the Girl Scouts study said they’d give up social networking completely if it meant keeping their best friend. Try to get to know your kids’ friends parents so you know they’re going over to a safe environment, and if possible maintain a safe, hospitable, open-door policy for your kids’ friends in your own home.
  • Set clear boundaries about social networking. Make sure your kids limit their time on the Internet, but avoid forbidding it outright without careful consideration first. Boyd notes that parents who do not allow their kids to create online profiles “don’t understand that they’re pushing their kids to choose between social status and parental obedience.”