Ever wondered what your digital identity looks like? This may not be something you spend a lot of time worrying about but, for young people, this is a hugely significant issue. But what exactly do we mean by ‘digital identity’? Well, it’s not just the information that computers collect about you. Whenever we use social media, we portray ourselves a certain way through what we post, share, like or join. Particularly for young people, who are still forming their sense of self, the use and influence of social media can affect how they see themselves.
Social media offers young people plenty of opportunity to interact with people of different viewpoints and ideas, whether it’s thought-sharing sites like Twitter or more image and video-focussed sites like Youtube, TikTok or Instagram. It can be very validating when they share something online that gets plenty of reactions – but then chasing this sense of validation can affect the way they behave online. Seeing the validation that others are getting for their posts on social media can cause young people to compare themselves. A famous American Pastor, Steven Furtick, said: “We struggle with insecurity because we compare our behind-the-scenes with everyone else’s highlight reel.” Not feeling like their lives measure up to what they might see on other’s social media can be a source of anxiety for young people.
One particular danger is that young people surround themselves with an ‘echo chamber’ – this means a group of peers who share their opinions and echo them back. The algorithms on social media can reinforce this as they often show us content we are already interested in. The need for validation can also cause us to want to create a better picture of ourselves for the online world to see. Social media is increasingly image-oriented, and young people may be tempted to fabricate or exaggerate their experiences to get the perfect shot rather than enjoying the moments of their lives.
Another side to this coin is that receiving validation for portraying themselves a certain way, and seeing the negative reactions they get if they portray themselves a different way, can put pressure on young people not to post certain things. On social media, there are plenty of opportunities for telling the world who you are: but for many young people, they feel they are already expected to act or be a certain way and they need to avoid reinforcing these expectations. All of this has a deeper effect on young people’s identity. Because our words and actions are closely tied with our identity, when we receive validation or pressure for them, it can affect how secure we feel in who we are.
As supporters of young people, it is good to be aware of the issues that young people face online and be sensitive to what they may be going through. Some ways that we can offer support include:
- Refraining from judging what young people share online, and understanding that what they share in this context isn’t a picture of them as a whole person.
- Engaging with young people’s posts constructively to help them develop their ideas, rather than simply liking, disliking or leaving discouraging comments.
- Giving them privacy when wanted – young people might want to use Facebook, TikTok, Twitter and Instagram to engage with different sets of people, so don’t be offended if they don’t add you on every platform!
- Giving them experiences outside of the digital world – everyone needs time away from their online lives to experience the world and spend time with others in person.
Lastly, we can pray for and encourage them to know Jesus better and to form an identity in Christ. To know that we are loved and accepted as children of God gives us a firm foundation even when the culture around us – including the online culture – changes so fast. We need to be secure in an identity that is separate from the validation we get online and the things that we hold onto online. If our identity is in Christ, as a child of God and made in the image of God, then we can be secure even when we feel vulnerable online.
Hannah Moyse - Resources Editor