Identity and Social Media: A Psychological Perspective

I left Facebook for a month and the world didn’t end. I had become frustrated by my own compulsion to connect electronically, and was convinced it was getting in the way of my productivity and personal goals. Being an introverted personality, I didn’t think I would miss the interaction so much and hoped I would become more focused and more emotionally available to experience the ‘real’ world, the here and the now. What actually happened surprised me. First of all very few people even noticed my absence, apart from Facebook itself which sent me 11 notifications in the first week prompting me to reconnect, which led me to question the authenticity of my friendships and of my contribution to the social group. Secondly, although I had more occasions on which I was available to write or paint instead of procrastinating and scrolling my newsfeed, a big source of inspiration was cut off. Convinced I was just adjusting, and unwilling to accept that social media was more important to me than I realised, I quickly became quite depressed.

Why this should be the case, from a psychological perspective, interested me greatly. Then when I logged back in, one of the first things I noticed was a quote from an unknown source:

If you want to know what someone fears losing, watch what they photograph

Given that much of my newsfeed was filled with selfies, it prompted me to think: do people in the technological age fear losing themselves? And my enquiry naturally progressed to: How does social media contribute to our mental health and sense of identity?


The Psychology of Identity

What we know as an identity crisis is typically associated with adolescents. It is the fifth stage of psychologist Erik Erickson’s Stages of Development, and characterises the transition from childhood to adulthood. Erickson said that exploring, and then committing, to a personal identity as separate from that of the parents, paved the way for healthy development in the next stages: intimacy and contributing to society. Major aspects of identity include sexual orientation, political values and religious beliefs. Finding this identity can be problematic for several reasons. For example there may be a clash between the role we are expected to fulfil and the one we feel is our true path, or we may be trapped in earlier forms of development such as learning initiative and autonomy.

Identity crisis is not however, limited to this early time in life. It can happen multiple times during our adult lives, as we are forced to re-evaluate the world-views we have built either due to major challenges we face or simply due to organic change in our attitudes over time. The term crisis is therefore a little excessive for something whose presence is such a natural and part of our continued personal evolution. I would prefer to call it identity exploration.

There are four states a person’s identity exploration can be in, which were defined by James Marcia as:

Identity Diffusion – Low in commitment and low in exploration. People in this category don’t know what their role is in life, and have no desire to find out.

Moratorium – Low in commitment and high in exploration. These are people who have no fixed idea of who they are, but are searching for their place. This is in part an explanation for adolescent rebels, but is also descriptive of many adults who are re-evaluating themselves.

Foreclosure – High in commitment and low in exploration. These people have decided who they are. They believe their identity to be fixed and do not entertain the idea of self-searching. The difficulty with this category is that the identity is usually what has been put upon the person by their parents or peer group, and they lack the ability to question this. Further developments needed for a successful adult life will likely suffer as a result.

Identity Achievement – High in commitment and high in exploration. People who have achieved an identity they are comfortable with after a period of questioning, experimenting and searching.

I don’t doubt that all of these groups are users of social media, but my suspicion is that they use it in different ways and for different reasons. Facebook in particular provides access to near limitless information on every political party, sexual orientation and religious group you can think of: it is a huge open play area for those in high self-exploration phases. Anyone can have an account (or multiple accounts) and choose what they wish to share about themselves and what ideas they wish to follow, effectively giving rise to ‘trying out’ different identities with less concern about its lasting impact. Without modern technology and connectivity, more doors are closed for this kind of experimentation. Of course, that is the way it was until perhaps 15 years ago, but now that most have access to this kind of platform, identity achievement (or at least exploration) is accelerated and those outside of it are arguably at a disadvantage.

Personally, I am very explorative by nature. Although I am comfortable in myself, I am always seeking alternative ways, trying to gain a deeper understanding of what makes us choose a particular path. Never 100% committing to any one viewpoint, I am always open to re-assessing my beliefs. Social media is a very useful tool for my journey, and one of the reasons I began to feel lost without it could have been the lack of diversity found in everyday life comparatively.


The Importance of Groups in Identity

Comfort and commitment to an individual identity is not enough to satisfy most people. We also have an innate drive to share our identity with others, to receive validation for who we have chosen to be, and to successfully and meaningfully contribute to a social structure.

We gravitate towards groups that make us feel good about ourselves as individuals, which usually translates as groups that contain people we feel connected to through shared ideology or values. In fact, there is strong correlation between psychological dysfunction and a lack of positive, inclusive social groupings. In other words, if the groups we are part of are not functioning in a healthy way for us, or if we are not part of groups that share our most highly valued beliefs and identity aspects, then we are more likely to suffer from mental health problems. In the workplace, if we do not identify with the organisation or our colleagues we are far more likely to experience stress and dissatisfaction with our job. Professor Alex Haslam, speaking at a recent psychology conference, goes so far as to say joining multiple groups aligned with our own perspectives is akin to an inoculation against depression.

The link between social media and our need to be part of groups is obvious. Even the most basic account on Facebook grants us entry to an online friendship group, with options to also become part of as many interest-based communities and groups as we like. Groups exist online in far greater quantities and specialisms than they do in ‘real’ life, so it is more likely that we can find what suits our personal identity most, and in the most convenient and comfortable way.

What of my earlier assertion, that being introverted makes us less reliant on social identity? The main difference between extraversion and introversion as I see it, is to do with energy regulation. As Susan Cain pointed out in her book Quiet: ‘Introverts recharge their batteries by being alone; extroverts need to recharge when they don’t socialise enough.’ Extroverts tend to be more outgoing, more confident and ready to speak immediately in a group of people. Introverts are often more reserved, and struggle to make themselves heard amongst a group. They will speak when they have something they think is useful to add, not for the sake of small talk.

But this is not to say that introverts have less of a need to be part of a group than extroverts, and in fact this makes social media all the more valuable a tool for us. Being part of groups online takes away the noise of conversation, the pressure of small talk and the heavy presence of a multitude of big personalities. Online, an introvert can take time in responding coherently, and indeed be more selective about what he/she responds to. These being the key draws, Facebook seems to tick more of the boxes in this case than the faster moving, small-talk swamped, larger group environment of Twitter.

The millennial generation (people born between 1980 and 2000) differs from previous generations in that technology and online group interaction is embedded in their lives. They have a greater reliance on staying connected, receiving feedback and being part of interactive social groups and therefore are quicker to suffer the detrimental psychological effects of being outside of social media. They are also less likely to replace the group membership with ‘real’ world alternatives.

If you are an established user of social media, regardless of your personality orientation or generation, the decision to take time away from it is also a decision to move out of a number of social groupings. This can have a negative effect on mental health if not replaced with other groups that have useful and positive functions in your life. An introvert is less likely to seek out social groupings in the ‘real’ world, as is a millennial who is not so well versed in the alternatives; so by disconnecting from healthy online groups, may quickly become isolated without realising it. This is probably what happened to me.


Social Anxiety and the Need for Control

What about identity issues that can arise as a result of too much social media interaction? Along with depression, social anxiety is one of the biggest mental health issues experienced worldwide. There can be many causes for this, but as symptoms generally arise from a fear of being closely watched, judged and criticised by others, it seems reasonable to explore social media use as a contributory factor.

As previously mentioned, social media allows us to try out different identity options without committing to them. It encourages the voicing of opinions we may otherwise be too shy to say, and it allows us to be selective in showing only what makes us feel good about ourselves. If we spend a lot of time online compared with face to face interaction, we might be inclined to believe what we see of people is how they really are. Constantly reading about the exaggerated achievements of others may lead to a feeling of inadequacy about ourselves, leading to pressure to be more perfect. And we may believe that the online version of ourselves we have created is what we really are, or at least what other people are expecting us to be when we meet them. Immediately it becomes apparent there is a gap forming between expectations and reality, and this alone is enough to trigger the self-consciousness and uncertainty that characterises social anxiety.

Although having a seemingly endless choice of opinions and perspectives to consider can be supportive in identity-forming, it can also be overwhelming. Even though we choose the groups we become part of, the constant sharing of ideas and memes and news stories that we don’t have control over can cause confusion and unease. There has been an increase of videos and images shared with graphic and distressing content over the last couple of years in the name of ‘spreading awareness’, but sometimes a lack of censorship can be difficult to cope with even if we agree in principle that information should be available to all.

When a high proportion of our socialising is done online it can make us less skilled in communication when we do need to be in direct presence of people and groups. There are aspects of inter-personal exchange that simply cannot exist online, such as body language, tone of voice and intuitive empathy. Professor Mehrabian measured this in a study as long as 45 years ago, and concluded that a huge 93% of communication is non-verbal. There is little wonder that when we have spent a lot of time online, building up our confidence as social butterflies, we feel panic and stress at being thrown into a live face to face situation. What is more, we are used to being given cues as to how acceptable our behaviour and opinions are by how many likes and views our posts have received: there is no such thing in ‘real’ life other than understanding the visual clues of body language and listening to tone of voice. If we are out of practice with this it is conceivable that we may misjudge situations and reactions; becoming overly conscious of them, feeling out of control and spiralling into further anxiety.

Another aspect of social media, and the internet in general, is the speed at which we become accustomed to operating. New information is constantly available, and most often in short snippets. Context is lost in a lot of communication in this way, and our attention spans become shorter. This gives rise to another disconnect between expectations and reality, as the speed of interchanges, information and events in the ‘real’ world often have a much slower pace that may begin to feel unnatural to us. Many of us are unable to hold an in depth conversation anymore without checking our notifications on our phones and breaking eye contact. This is in part due to our reduced capacity for maintaining concentration, and in part due to the addictive nature of notifications.

There is a theory in psychology called Transaction Analysis that was first popularised in the 1960s, whereby people measure themselves based on their interactions. Each interaction, whether positive or negative, is a transaction or a ‘stroke’ for the ego, and we subconsciously seek out the situations which will give us the most ‘strokes’. It seems to me that the ‘like’ system on Facebook is modelled on this theory, which could go some way to explaining why we find those notifications so addictive. Another point to note is that they are always in red, a colour that is proven to demand our attention because it is associated with danger and urgency. Unfortunately when something becomes a compulsion it denotes a lack of control, and a lack of control again turns us into anxious people.

The problems I have discussed here cover my reasons for wanting to abandon my Facebook account in the first place. And as an anxious person who often fears the worst, I go back to my very first sentence: I left Facebook for a month and the world didn’t end. My anxiety was lowered, and the compulsion to check notifications disappeared relatively quickly once I made the choice to ignore them. A healthy sense of identity is all about moderation and control.


Displaying of Identity: The Art of Selfies

The idea of the self portrait is nothing new. But the technology available to us today has taken it to a new level: anyone can make a self portrait at any time. Anyone can choose an artistic angle, apply a filter, crop and touch up images before uploading them. Selfies are creative and they are a form of effortful self engagement. They are a way of exploring the visual aspect of our identity: understanding how we might look to other people, deciding how we feel about our flaws and imperfections, and recording a snapshot of who we are at a particular moment in time.

Looking back on a photograph where we felt happy or excited, enables us to tap back into those emotions which is positively reinforces of our self esteem. Uploading selfies puts us in control of our own statement and meaning. Constantly changing appearances and taking photos is all part of the exploration of identity.

I have read many accusations made towards people who take a lot of selfies that they are narcissists. Among other things, a narcissist is someone who demands constant attention and positive reinforcement from others, and has an obsessive level of self-interest. It is easy to see how taking constant photographs of oneself and seeking admiration could be perceived in this way. However let’s not forget that true narcissism is also a mental illness, and should not be used as a derogatory term or insult. It is a form of the Foreclosure identity state as described earlier: someone who is committed to their existing worldview and has no interest in exploring alternatives. The treatment for such an illness is being part of social groups whereby they can learn to become more sensitive to the feelings and opinions of others. Perhaps social media is a positive thing for their recovery is used in the right way. But for those who are in healthy self-exploration and post lots of selfies, I can see no problem with this. Your timeline, your page, is about you. It is a recording of your journey in which ever way you feel most appropriate. Your selfies capture a moment, a place, a person, an occasion. They are your memories.

The dark side of selfies comes when we begin comparing ourselves to what we judge to be ideal based only on our peers. We might think we should look or act a particular way because the people in a group we want to be part of look or act like that. This is the instinct of the dominance hierarchy sneaking into our identity model, and whilst it is necessary to our survival it doesn’t always lead to positive norms. We become accustomed to the norms of the groups we choose, and feedback from others in the group reflects back into how we perceive ourselves. Unfortunately this can be positive or negative, and our self esteem can suffer greatly as a result.

As a side note, I have often noticed that introverts are less likely to post selfies than extraverts, and if they do it will be one they have worked at or feel particularly happy with. Perhaps introverts being more internally than externally aware, and therefore more self-conscious, the way they look in a photograph doesn’t seem so natural. Extraverts are more likely to show emotion in their facial expressions too, so a photograph more accurately represents the mood of the moment for them, whereas introverts prefer a description.

Journaling, that is writing down thoughts and adding visual aids, is proven to be a stress reducing activity that reduces worry and lowers the heart rate. Using your timeline without expectations of a particular reaction from peers is actually a very healthy thing to do, for both your mental state and for your identity.


Like it or not, online connectivity and social media are here to stay. The compulsion of picking up a phone or tablet can be degenerative for the mind and wellbeing, especially if we are using it to the point of excluding the people who love us and the appreciation of our surroundings first hand. But if we are able to use it in moderation, and don’t use it to completely replace healthy face to face interaction, it can be beneficial to our sense of personal and social identity. If we deny ourselves the access to such channels, and don’t replace them with something to fulfil the same function, we can become depressed and have a decreased level of self-esteem.

So, do the social media generation fear losing themselves? In a sense, yes. But this is a more positive thing than it sounds at first. Not having an identity that we are committed to does not necessarily mean we are lost, but perhaps that we are in a period of self-exploration. We are experiencing the possibilities open to us, we are forging forwards and taking control of our own journey. So long as we are mindful of the pitfalls, social media is an invaluable tool for actually finding ourselves.

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