Digital Identity Development: A Significant Problem

College students frequently build community in both virtual and real-life worlds. Whether they are taking a web-hybrid course or posting photos on the popular photo sharing app, Instagram, today’s college-aged students are consuming and producing information, and living lives “regulated by technology” (Martinez Aleman & Wartman, 2011, p. 515). Social networking sites provide college students with a virtual place to create their brand, shape their identity and develop personal networks that can connect them with countless people across the globe (Lenhart & Madden, 2007). As students cultivate their reputation on the Internet, the inherent ability to share information can have many benefits, however, the negative consequences are proving to be endemic to student development (Kruger, 2013; O’Shea, 2013).

With the Internet comes unlimited access to information that can cause a sometimes liberating, and other times, a constraining feeling bursting with legal implications that address free speech, anonymity and accountability. Gossiping through social media outlets causes rumors to spread and feelings to be hurt. These negative impacts of living in a virtual world affect college students in a myriad of ways. Therefore, student affairs professionals and the students they serve must learn to evolve. That’s where this blog post comes in!

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Every click of your computer mouse provides permanent accounts of one’s Digital Dossier, the digitized files created and archived about oneself online. As professionals who work with college students, we must begin to expand their learning surrounding the facts that privacy does not exist online and our reputations are quickly becoming based on our Digital Identity (Solove, 2007).

What is already known about traditional aged-college students is that they spend a lot of time online, especially since they were “the first generation to grow up with the Internet and were the first to join social networking sites such as MySpace and Facebook” (Twenge, 2013, p. 15). Consumers of the Internet are posting and liking comments in Facebook groups, “favoriting” tweets, networking on LinkedIn, and are continuously posting public information onto the webWorld Wide Web. Every bit of information shared online is tracked, traced and archived (Solove, 2007). Just one ‘like’ or comment posted in cyberspace can cause a ripple effect that can be easily accessed far into the future. Most importantly, it is what students do online that translates into real-life, and can pose life-altering consequences after college. This is why digital identity development is so important. Likewise, coaching students through such dissonance can be vital to their growth as both people and consumers of digital and social media.

What is most critical in understanding the concepts outlined in this blog series is the fact that there is a “conflict between individual rights, privacy and claims of free speech and the responsibility of colleges and universities to monitor the behavior of their students” (Kruger, 2009, p. 589). College students need to be educated on the impact of their digital identity, both positive and negative. Utilizing the pedagogies outlined within this blog series will help to highlight the tangible process of coaching students through the “virtual vectors” of digital identity development.

Why students need a Digital Identity Coach

Social networking sites provide students with limitless virtual space to create their own digital identity, which is manifested the moment any person inputs information about themselves or others online. College student digital identity development can be looked at as an extension of their in-person identity, and is supported through countless networks and networkers, who self-present themselves through authentic, and sometimes deceivingly anonymous, profiles (boyd & Ellison, 2007; Lampe, Ellison, & Steinfeld, 2007; and Martinez Aleman & Wartman, 2011, 2008). The impact of a digital identity is so great that some websites urge college students to purge their Facebook timelines and Twitter profiles of inappropriateness before they begin college. This fact alone supports the need for digital identity awareness, development, and maintenance within the college setting (Waldman, 2012). On the contrary, other websites provide free and/or low-cost social media monitoring services for those who want to keep a pulse on their digital identity. But, this isn’t enough.

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Significance of the Problem

College students, much like political candidates, are able to capitalize on the use of social networking sites as an outlet that can be used to raise awareness of their personal brand.

“In order to achieve a successful online presence, [we] must involve the following elements in [our] social media endeavors: 1) Voice and Audience; 2) Posting Frequency; 3) Responsiveness; 4) Engagement; and 5) Content (Richter, 2012).

Through mastering these tenets, students can begin to identify their authentic voice online, effectively engage with their peers, and attempt to reach targeted audiences. Why is this important? Well, because social media makes the world we live in increasingly transparent. It is becoming quite clear that companies are targeting consumers in a multitude of ways through technological advancements. A shift in advertising, coupled with a fear of missing out, and the imminent threat of less and less privacy online allows us to become too public. As a result, we all must quickly adapt to living in the Social Media Revolution (Solove, 2007; boyd, 2010; and Qualman, 2013). As we continue to build relationships online, via social media platforms, we are engaging in excessive social sharing and publicness (Jarvis, 2011). “The Internet places a seemingly endless library in our homes; it allows us to communicate with others instantly; and it enables us to spread information with an efficacy and power that humankind has never before witnessed. The free flow of information on the Internet provides wondrous new opportunities for people to express themselves and communicate” (Solove, 2007, p. 2); and it also gives others power – the power to capture information, images, video and personal documents that can be instantly shared with the entire world.

What we know about today’s 21st Century college students is that they have grown up with social media at their fingertips. Walk on a college campus and you will see the use of smart technology everywhere; cell phones, tablets and computers have been making the campus and classroom environment a hub for social networking (Junco, 2012) more now than ever before. The Millennial Generation is leading the charge for our social media dependent society. We now live in a time where social media networking sites can be found everywhere, and with so much falling within the social media umbrella, it is difficult to conceptualize all of the potential impacts social media can have on a college student.

With the dawning of the millennium’s teenage years, the years leading up to 2020 will prove to be a historical time for the American college student; after all, the social media revolution is still in its’ storming stage (Qualman, 2013). More and more college students are discovering, posting, liking, and following the trends of our time. But what impact will all of this sharing have on their future? With the help of LinkedIn and other professional social media networking sites, the digital resume is becoming a hot commodity with one out of every three employers rejecting candidates based on something they found on their social media networking profile (Molloy, 2012). This is why coaching students is so vital – a poorly managed digital identity can negatively impact a person’s future, and quite often, there is no coming back from a bad 1st impression…

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Data that supports the need for Digital Identity Coaching

Do college students truly understand their loss of rights to privacy online? At least 27% of college admissions offices review applicants’ social media profiles via Google, and 26% check applicant Facebook profiles during the admissions process (Luca, 2013). 35% of admissions representatives said that they “reviewed something on these sites that negatively affected a student’s chances of being accepted” (Quinn, 2012). In addition, 51% of employers are saying that social media use has a negative impact on workplace productivity (Staffing Industry Analysts, 2012). “Admissions officers who reported that something they found [on social media] had negatively affected an applicant's chances of admission has increased from 12% to 35%. Some of the material that the admissions officers found: essay plagiarism, vulgarities in blogs, alcohol consumption in photographs and ‘illegal activities’” (Inside HigherEd, 2012). These staggering statistics are just the beginning. They help to make the case that student affairs professionals must do a better job at bringing this awareness to the forefront of developing the whole student.

The National Survey of Student Engagement (NSSE) (2012) found that 89% of college students use social media, and 40% of first year students look to social media to find out how to get involved on-campus. More than 90% of college students are connected on social media platforms (Dahlstrom, deBoor, Grunwald, & Vockley, 2011; Junco, 2011a; and Mastrodicasa & Metellus, 2013; Perrin & Duggan, 2015). Reynol Junco (2012) claims that online student engagement happens in many different ways, such as through transitioning or adjusting psychologically to the campus environment, increased maturity, meeting educational goals, being persistent, and developing a self-concept that is positive in nature. Time spent on Facebook, playing online games, ‘facebook stalking’, RSVPing to events, commenting on content, and other related activities contribute to student engagement online in both positive and negative ways. Junco (2012) found a positive relationship between the number of tweets and over all GPA, suggesting that social media can be utilized to increase engagement and both learning and educational outcomes. At this point, it is important to highlight that social media has many positive benefits, and should be used by college students and higher education administrators alike to build community and promote student engagement. Much of this post has been on the negative impacts a poorly managed digital identity can have. Since both the positive and negative impacts are vital to understanding digital identity development, it is important to operationalize Digital Identity.

Defining Digital Identity

A digital identity is the extension of ones’ in-person identity projected onto the World Wide Web through social media profiles and linked online accounts. It can be thought of as a person’s individual brand and can facilitate both positive and negative impacts on the 21st Century life experience."A more nuanced understanding recognizes that one can have multiple digital identities and that these identities are not static. Instead, digital identities are co-constructed with others who may be interacting with or consuming the content of these identities" (Brown, 2016). Researchers are claiming that the way we approach student development must become more innovative and different than ever before (Stoller, 2013b), and that it should embrace calculated interventions (Junco, 2011b). Dalton and Crosby (2013) state that social media is seductive, addictive, risky and changing the traditional landscape of the college experience. The way student affairs professionals conduct their work as “gatekeepers of the student experience” (p. 2) is beginning to shift. As social media continues to impact student life, it has truly become the “most important gateway for student experiences in college” (p. 2).

Team and Computer A digital identity influences values and behavior and will continue to transform relationships, affording students and professionals the opportunity to solve problems and develop authentic relationships. It is also an engaging communication tool that encompasses measurement; assessment; action; patterns; civility; dissonance; sharing; and an increase in the fluidity of privacy and critical thinking (Stoller, 2013b). Social media provides opportunity and can even be a useful source of reflection (Dalton & Crosby, 2013); a place for managing emotions, grieving, and for expressing joy (Sofka, Cupit, & Gilbert, 2012); and as a venue to shape our identity, build a personal brand and make meaning out of the world (Stoller, 2013b).

Jean Twenge (2013) suggests that college student digital identities provide more connection to political action and involvement and can evoke positive self-views that can inspire social movements. Social Media has profound effects on college students and their identity development, such as creating an increase in self-focus and narcissism; the manifestation of mental health issues; cyber-bullying and stalking; the amplification of existing tendencies, and has even sparked a decline in empathy and civic engagement.

Digital identities are outcome based. Whether it is a college athlete protecting or promoting their own brand or a first-year student tweeting for a class assignment, digital identities can cultivate psychosocial, academic and other various student learning outcomes that engage the whole student (Junco, Heiberger, & Loken, 2010; Ellison, Steinfield, & Lampe, 2011; Walfish, 2012; Kruger, 2013; and Stoller, 2013b). “There is increasing evidence that social media have a positive effect on a wide range of personal and developmental outcomes. Recent studies have shown that social media have a perceived positive effect on emotional well-being, confidence, and sympathy toward others and lead to more successful relationships with friends and family members” (Common Sense Media, 2012; Kruger, 2013, p. 32). Digital identities are created via social media networking sites and are proving to be more than just a marketing tool for big business. Rather, they relentlessly contribute to a students’ personal and professional online brand and identity (Couros, 2012).

Facer and Selwyn (2010) urge educators to focus their attention and research efforts to social media networking sites, as they provide a venue for identity construction. Cathy Cronin (2012) asserts that a Digital identity is a persona that one promotes digitally across social networks and communities. We leave a ‘digital footprint’ behind every time we interact with others online. It consists of the information that we, ourselves, create and choose to put out onto the World Wide Web. Cronin (2012) also advises students and higher education professionals to proactively choose to create their own digital identity. As well, she points out that we should protect it, as our online presence is seen as an ‘act of identity construction’ or self authorship.

Stoller (2012a; 2012b) suggests that a partnership between the National Orientation Directors Association (NODA), The National Resource Center for The First Year Experience (FYE) & Students in Transition, and the National Association of Colleges and Employers be formed to collaborate with an institutions Career Services Office. Kruger (2013), also supports this notion so that colleges and universities across the globe should institute Digital identity development sessions and workshops during first year Orientation and First Year Experiential programs, rather than waiting until a students’ senior year in college. Waiting until a senior year may be too late to begin managing a digital identity that already had been formed during a student’s high school and/or early college years. “The manner in which we engage, share, promote, and present ourselves online has become a major facet in many of our lives. No longer seen as being separate from ‘real life,’ an individual’s digital identity is intricately connected to their overall identity (Stoller, 2012a).

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Research initiatives such as this should provide educators with proof that Digital identity development research is being conducted to some degree, and that higher education must join the efforts (boyd, 2010; Cronin, 2012; Henry, 2012; Stoller, 2012a, 2012b; Stewart, 2012; Dalton & Crosby, 2013; Kruger, 2013; Mastrodicasa & Metellus, 2013; O’Shea, 2013; Stoller, 2013a, 2013b; and Twenge, 2013). Like getting involved in college, “there is undoubtedly much to be gained from taking control of, and actively developing our digital identity” (The Paradox of Openness, 2011). “Actively creating learning spaces that foster positive development of digital identity should be our mandate. It hasn’t been created (yet), but the addition of digital identity to the current canon of student development theories seems like a logical evolution” (Stoller, 2012a).

To connect with a coach, and to find out how to bring one to your campus, you are encouraged to visit QuestCoaches.com and explore how you and your students can navigate these seven virtual vectors, while striving to lead a digital life that is genuine and congruent. Stay tuned for our next post where we will dive into Lesson #1 of our Coaching Playbook: Developing Digital Competence.

For a complete list of references used in creating this blog post, click here.