Lesson #4: Developing Mature, Interpersonal, Virtual Relationships

The development of mature, interpersonal relationships is constantly occurring online through social media networking sites. Students can develop intimate relationships, gain intercultural competence and display appreciations of differences and mutuality as they engage with one another as digital citizens (Kandell, 1998; Kruger, 2013; and Renn & Reason, 2013). “In person and online college settings offer opportunities for students to learn about others from different backgrounds and to establish mature, mutual relationships with them” (Renn & Reason, 2013, p. 148). Because of their constant attachment to social media, college students may receive coaching from a Digital Identity coach to assist them in gaining a balance between “taking charge of their lives” and finding a willingness to ask for help when needed. In this sense, autonomy may propel students as they travel through this Virtual Vector.

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In looking at this Virtual Vector through the lens of Gestalt Therapy, it may be challenging for students to “separate their environment or form interpersonal relations” (Australian Institute of Professional Counsellors, 2006). Digital Identity coaches will want to challenge students to focus on the “here-and-now” impact of the relationships they are building, while also bringing to light the potential consequences that a poorly managed digital identity may have on one’s future. Taking a Gestalt approach to managing emotions online, as well as developing interpersonal relationships, may be just what a student needs to help navigate and understand the impacts of the things they choose to post on the World Wide Web. This student-centered approach can help in focusing on the present, understand what is going on in their lives at this current time and place, as well as delve into meaningful experiences from their past and how they may be playing out here in the present. Gestalt Therapy is also known to be helpful in navigating issues related to anxiety, depression, self-esteem and even relationship difficulties (Psychology Today, 2017), and therefore would be an excellent theoretical lens to support digital identity development.

Photo A Digital Identity coach can help students “rebalance [their] needs for autonomy and attachments - moving from distance to closeness in some cases and from intimacy to separation in others” and would define interpersonal relationships as “connections with others that have profound impact on students’ lives” (p. 145).

“Recognition and acceptance of interdependence is the capstone of autonomy. It cannot be experienced until a measure of independence has been achieved and a sense of one’s place in the community and global society has been awakened” (Chickering & Reisser, 1993, p. 140).

These references to awakening, recognition and acceptance all relate to the development of mature interpersonal relationships.

Now more than ever, so many of our relationships are being built on social media, rather than in person. Relationships are completely different now than they were 5, 10 or even 15 years ago – Today, everything (and nearly everyone) is online. eHarmony.com reports that 40% of Americans use online dating sites/apps, and that 20% of current, committed relationships began online (Thottam, 2017). The Pew Research Center (2016) confirms that 86% of individuals ages 18-29 use at least one social media site. Similarly, Pew reports that 78% of college graduates use at least one social media site, with Instagram growing in popularity amongst the most widely used social media platform for today’s college students. While this is a brief snapshot of online usage of many traditionally-aged college students, it does seem to support the notion that as students navigate college, and even more so as they grow and mature into career minded adults, the impact of what they do today online will undoubtedly have an impact on their future.

Maturity is also impacted as students manage their emotions, experience dissonance, develop competence and build mature, interpersonal relationships online. Chickering and Reisser (1993) claim that through “role models who share insights, the opportunity to observe firsthand the struggles of others and the challenge to develop new ways to interact” (p. 157) can be some of the ways in which students recognize, grow and expand their identity. Interactions, responses to online content and taking ownership over individual behavior, all connect important pieces of the ways college students develop their digital identity. As an example, if we were to look back on when the Defense of Marriage Act reached the Supreme Court in 2013, we would see that social media was very active and college students (along with folks of all ages) had a lot of thoughts, opinions and beliefs they needed to share. Some college students posted defensive content about their dislike for others’ differing opinions, while others advocated for, displayed acceptance, adapted to and chose to integrate their support for one another across social media. The changing of student profile pictures in support of marriage equality was overwhelming, in a positive and liberating way, and this example provides a small glimpse at how the World Wide Web has and continues to facilitate countless opportunities for students to develop, maintain and even terminate, relationships.

The Internet is a catalyst for exploring identity online and if often used to showcase a students’ capacity for intimacy and vulnerability. It is important that as Student Affairs professionals engage with students and help them develop their digital brand, that we teach them about congruency, respect, honesty and responsibility as it relates to their identity (Chickering & Reisser, 1993).

To connect with a Digital Identity Coach, or 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 #5 of our Coaching Playbook: Establishing a Digital Identity.

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