2.1 Forming an Identity

“You can edit your life on Instagram. I think people think I’m cooler than I am.”

— Lilli Hymowitz1

What is identity and how does it develop? There are two classic theoretical approaches of viewing adolescent identity formation — the psychological and the sociological view — both of which can shed light on youth’s digital media use and how teen identity and intimacy play out in a social media landscape.

  • Psychological views of identity focus on youth separating from their parents and figuring out who they are in society. Sherry Turkle’s early research about the Internet15 celebrated anonymous online spaces as potential avenues for identity exploration. Today, with digital and networked technologies embedded in many young people’s lives, and with mistakes preserved online long after their teen years, it is harder for teens to achieve this type of freedom.

  • Sociological views of identity treat identity as a social and cultural construction, arguing that we become ourselves as we interact and learn from people, culture, and society. Teens engage in impression management, particularly online, to manage other people’s perceptions of them. This is complicated when family, peer, and school contexts are present in an online space.

Online self-expression and "the packaged self"

Excerpt from LIS 516: Youth Development and Behavior in a Digital Age by Dr. Katie Davis and the University of Washington


Dr. Katie Davis, University of Washington

Teens use different social media platforms in different ways, in an effort to individualize and explore other identities.

  • Teens use online platforms like instagram to curate and craft identities through the content they share.2
  • Howard Gardner and Katie Davis, authors of The App Generation, describe the performative nature of online self expression as “the packaged self.” Selfies, likes, and status updates encourage “personal branding” activities that foster a romanticized depiction of teens’ lives.
  • Teens can face many pressures in presenting a crafted, packaged self. For example, on Instagram many teens are focused on conveying a desirable image through their physical appearance and material possessions.
  • Some teens are attempting to carve out more anonymous online spaces that place less emphasis on an idealized persona. Online spaces like fan communities may offer teens greater freedom to express themselves.


Designers of new technologies can also influence identity formation. For example, it took Facebook ten years to offer its users different options for gender identities. The fusion of personal and corporate, tech designers’ values, and the features of online applications and communities can all influence adolescents developing sense of identity, impacting the way they view themselves and the world.

Identity, “Selves,” and Information Needs

Researchers Denise Agosto and Sandra Hughes-Hassell study the “everyday life information seeking” habits of teens living in urban areas, theorizing that information seeking during the teen years is “the gathering and processing of information to facilitate the multifaceted teen-to-adulthood maturation process.”3 They identified seven “selves” that teens must develop. Briefly summarized, these include:

  • The social self - how teens see society and their place in it
  • The emotional self - inner feelings and reactions to the world
  • The reflective self - identity and beliefs about the world
  • The physical self - health, safety, daily routines, and other physical activities
  • The creative self - creation and self-expression
  • The cognitive self - intellectual understanding of the world
  • The sexual self - sexuality, sexual health and behavior

These different selves reveal both the types of searches teens may engage in as well as the developmental needs that motivate their information behavior.


Read NY Magazine’s The Prom Queen of Instagram.

How might forms of self expression through digital and networked technologies enable or constrict youth’s identity development?


What role can libraries and youth librarians play in supporting teens’ identity formation?


Teens engage in ________________ to control how people perceive them online. 

1: The Prom Queen of Instagram

2: Davis, K. & Weinstein, E. (2017). Identity development in the digital age: An Eriksonian perspective. In M.F. Wright (Ed.), Identity, sexuality, and relationships among emerging adults in the digital age, pp. 1-17. Hershey, PA: IGI Global.

3: Agosto, D., & Hughes-Hassell, S. (2006). Toward a Model of the Everyday Life Information Needs of Urban Teenagers, Part 1: Theoretical Model.