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Identity integration and online social contexts: Can theory and research on identity formation help understand online identity formation?

Conference contribution
Authors Maria Wängqvist
Ann Frisén
Published in Paper presented at the Youth 2.0 Connecting, Sharing and Empwering Workshop, Antwerp, belgium, March 20-22, 2013
Publication year 2013
Published at Department of Psychology
Language en
Subject categories Psychology


Aim. The purpose of this presentation is to discuss how online identity constructions may be understood in the light of theories and research of identity formation. The overall ambition is to open up for the exchange of ideas and research findings between identity researchers and researchers in social media. The topic of how theories of identity formation may apply to social media will be addressed by first introducing theoretical perspectives on identity formation as well as relevant research including published and unpublished work. The presentation will focus on the importance of different social contexts to identity formation. A specific question is whether social media is comparable to other social contexts with regards to its importance and influence on the identity formation of young people, or if it has specific features that make identity formation in social media different from other contexts of identity formation. Background. Central to the presentations is the construct of identity integration: The extent to which people strive to integrate their different roles and social identities into a coherent whole. The process of identity integration has been described as the very foundation of peoples’ sense of identity (Syed, 2010). By integrating different social identities or role identifications, people develop the coherence between the past, the present, the future, and different roles that signifies a stable sense of identity (Erikson, 1968). Research show that a sense of identity is related to well-being and other aspects of adjustment (Schwartz et al., 2011). Against this background one may assume that if young people feel that who they are online is similar to, or different from who they are in other social contexts impacts their overall sense of identity and in extension other aspects of their development as well. Method. The suggested presentation focus on identity formation in different contexts, with the purpose to raise a discussion on how young people’s identity constructions in the online-context may be understood in the light of theory and research on identity formation. The presentation draws on data from a study with emerging adults that has been reported on elsewhere [references removed for masked review]. The presentation also includes new analyses that focus on identity integration across different contexts and how this is related to psychological distress in a community sample of 136 24-26-year-olds. The measures used was a questionnaire concerning the importance of different social contexts to peoples’ self-descriptions and the extent to which context-specific identities were integrated, as well as the Symptom Checklist 90 (SCL-90) that measures psychological symptoms. Results. When identity status interviews (Marcia et al., 1993) were used in a study with 25-year-olds [reference removed for masked review] the distributions over different positions in the identity formation process across different life-areas were investigated. This showed both convergence and divergence in identity formation in different life areas. In the new analyses of identity contexts, identity integration, and psychological distress, it was found that the own home, leisure activities, and the romantic relationship was the three contexts that the 25-year-olds found to be most important to their sense of identity. These analyses also showed that the integration of context-specific identities was related to psychological symptoms. So that a more integrated sense of identity was related to fewer symptoms. Conclusion. Thus, research show both that identity integration is an important aspect of development and that there is both divergence and convergence with regards to identity formation across different social contexts and life-areas. This raises questions about the importance and integration of identity constructions in the online context into an individuals’ sense of identity. Social media offer new arenas for young people’s identity explorations. Explorations are important to identity formation in many social contexts and previous theory and research on identity formation may further the understanding of the importance of social media to identity formation.

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