Media and media content play an important role in the identity formation of children and ado-
lescents. Extensive research has been done on the relevance of mass media content for the for-
mation of identity in particular. This research shows the potential as well as the impeding effects
of the processing of media content in the phases of development of a conscious relation to one’s
self and the world. Social networking services not only offer adolescents content landmarks, they
also provide structures for exchanging ideas with others and they open up new possibilities to
present oneself, e.g. in the creation and publishing of their own works. In the context of this
modified framework of media practices, our research attempts to outline, in what way adoles-
cents appropriate these new media worlds and how, as a consequence, the relevance of these
media structures and the content dealt with therein is changing the context of identity for-
1 Purpose and Methodology
The study “Identity Formation and the Construction of Social Space in Media Practices on Social
Networking Services” presented here1 focuses on identity-related activities of teenagers between
the age of 13 and 17 in social networking services. It researches the question as to how teena-
gers connect identity formation and media practices under the present conditions, in the context
of the meshing of reception and interaction opportunities in the social web. The study is based
on the premise that the relevance of media practices in social networking services for the identi-
ty formation of adolescents can become apparent in various ways. The following areas of inte-
rest can be identified:
– Topical aspects of the media practices: How are media practices of adolescents guided by
their interests? Which age-specific developmental tasks can be identified in in-depth
– Action repertoire: How do adolescents integrate the social networking into their every-
day life actions?
– Media practices as a perspective on social spacing: How do adolescents transform socio-
spatial relations in their media practices? What characteristics of mediatized social spaces
are relevant for identity formation processes?
This approach reflects the fact that the appropriation of social reality today is, on one hand, pur-
sued via the media and its content, and on the other hand, through the interaction in media-
tized social spaces.
As an empirical basis for this study we conducted 16 individual in-depth interviews, performed as
computer-based guided interviews with adolescents between the ages of 13 and 17 years. 2 The
social networking service used as the focus for the interviews was facebook. This social networ-
king service was discussed in the interviews based on the accounts held by the participants.
In addition, a research workshop was held with eleven male and female students between 13
and 16 years 3 over a period of six weeks. In this workshop we used methods of topical active
media work as well as thematically focused interviews and reflection sessions.
1 This study is the fourth study in the research project „The Internet as a Reception and Presentation Plat-
form for Adolescents” commissioned by the Bavarian Regulatory Authority for Commercial Broadcasting (Bayerische Landeszentrale für neue Medien, BLM). 2 Eight boys and eight girls were interviewed in this survey. Eight of the adolescents had a lower level of formal education (general secondary school (Hauptschule)) and eight of the adolescents had a higher level of formal education (intermediate secondary school (Realschule) or high school (Gymnasium)). 3 The participants were six girls and five boys from an intermediate secondary school (Realschule).
The study focused on the following research questions:
– How do adolescents appropriate social networking services?
– In what way are online media practices and identity formation interconnected?
– What is the role of the media framing for media practices relevant to identity formation?
– What challenges are the subjects facing in their identity formation within mediatized so-
2 Summary of results
The comprehensive analysis of the individual surveys reveals different emphases in the media
practices of the adolescents as well as the various ways in which the social networking service
facebook is relevant to identity formation in adolescents.
The action repertoires of the participants are determined by the subjects’ individual media use
according to personal interests and motives.
Differentiated perspectives on the ways in which teenagers form the facets of their identity for-
mation can be obtained by observing the facebook-related action repertoires. These vary in
scope, regardless of gender and educational background, i.e. the participants make use of the
various action options on facebook in varying ways and prioritize individual options according to
their own interests.
What becomes apparent is the enormous importance that all participants attribute to the inter-
personal communication with their peers. Many conversations with their friends are happening
in the media, as well as various discussions relating to the organization of everyday life. For this,
the adolescents mostly use chat functions, or create specific facebook groups, which deal with
plans in the peer group, school-related issues or the organization of sports-related activities in
and outside of clubs or associations (e.g. sharing information on soccer practices). In these cases,
facebook is used to coordinate online what happens offline. The interests of adolescents draw
recognizable orientation lines in the media practices on facebook. These lines can be identified
in different ways: in their own articulations4, in the information they post on their facebook
profile page, by the fan pages they subscribed to or through interaction with others.
The topical perspectives in adolescents’ self-representation are closely related to their self-
image and the challenges they face in their lifeworlds.
From an adolescent’s perspective, their online activities, self-representation, as well as the way
they interact in the social web, should be authentic. For the most part, they want to present
themselves to others the way they ‘really are’. For this, they make use of various medial expres-
sion and interaction possibilities available. The findings of our survey make it clear how identity
formation can present itself as a way of overcoming challenges posed in their individual living
environments and/or biographies on facebook, and how topical interests, personal characteristics
and, in particular, self-reference in the media practices interplay in this development.
Adolescents’ identity formation is closely linked to converging media offerings and content in
the social web.
Mass media content and its traces can be found in the media practices of the participants in vari-
ous ways. They become intertwined with the personal content created by the teenagers them-
selves as well as by others. In the profiles of the boys and girls participating in our survey we
4 Medial articulations on facebook are for instance photos, videos or written status updates.
found user-generated content from their contacts as well as mass media or advertising content.
Frequently, the source of the content and who is responsible for it cannot be ascertained clearly.
Mass medial relations in self-representation, sharing via mass media sources, as well as the mul-
tiple reference structures across the social web play an important role in the media practices of
youths. Almost all teenagers identify with certain mass media content or content they mainly
receive via mass media, and they demonstrate this in their profiles. This is achieved for instance,
by including clips from the video platform YouTube in their communications on facebook. At the
same time, posts containing mass media references inform teenagers about what others like,
thus allowing orientation and social delimitation. Challenges and problems for the youths arise
from the publication and reference structures, in which their interests might be used for example
to spread (even inappropriate) content, as well as from their own actions, when legal violations
are embedded in their media practices.
Media practices related to the social space are closely connected to adolescents’ identity for-
In the course of their appropriation of mediatized social spaces, teenagers also acquire social
relationships and position themselves in the society and ‘the world’. Thus, the media practices
related to social space are closely connected to their identity formation. Media practices identi-
fied with this focus are called ‘modes of socio-spatial media practices’. They comprise modes of
‘projection’ of socio-spatial relations, which focus on how (consciously) teenagers create socio-
spatial relations on facebook. There are also modes of ‘scaling’ of socio-spatial relations, which
focus on the ways in which teenager vary the size of their social space. Specific challenges arise
for youths from the different modes.
The ‘projection’ of socio-spatial relations shows that the participants (want to) perpetuate such
relations on facebook, and use the conditions of the platform in various ways.
– There are overlaps in the mediatized social spaces of most youths.
The mode of this (unintentional) ‘overlap’ in the media practices becomes apparent in the
media practices of most teenagers. Via their facebook profile they are in touch with people
from various social spaces, e.g. their friends from school, their family members, and ac-
quaintances from their leisure activities. However, they do not restrict their profile contents
in a manner to limit the respective contexts. This leads to the relatively uncontrolled visibil-
ity of contents and life aspects across the different social spaces and thus – as a consequence
of the continued mediatization of other areas of their lives – to a convergence of social
– Interweaving only happens to a certain extent and only with actual topical reference points.
The ‘interweaving’ mode, i.e. the conscious creation of connections between different social
spaces on facebook, happens mostly in relation to individual experiences and events, which
the teenagers want to share with as many people as possible. This mode also occurs when
social spaces themselves are fragmented and distributed. Thus, interweaving becomes only
apparent in media practices with actual topical reference points.
– The technological framework is rarely used to separate social spaces.
Only a few of the participants rely on the technological environment of the platform for the
‘separation’ of social spaces. However, many of the teenagers show a tendency to differen-
tiate between their contacts. This becomes obvious in their responses to the question of
how much they care about items from the News Feed5 and if they would react to these
posts. Here, the personal relationship to the person who has made the post is of im-
portance: A close friend can mostly expect a response, whereas the positioning towards a
post from a not so close friend is influenced by the social framework and the established
rules within the given social space.
The ‘scaling’ of social spaces makes clear, that facebook is used mainly to expand contacts.
Equivalent to a ‘virtual youth club’6, the platform corresponds to the developmental task of ado-
lescents to create and maintain social relationships outside and independent of their families.
– The expansion across friends’ friends is important.
As is typical for adolescence, the expansion of the individual’s circle of friends is also very
important on facebook. There is plenty of evidence for the vital role social networking ser-
vices can play in this. Our survey provides additional support for this perspective and focuses
on the teenagers’ perception of various platform functionalities available for these activi-
ties, e.g. automatic displays of new friendships in the News Feed, which animates others to
decide whether this new contact might be an interesting person to be friends with.
– Supplementation follows topical aspects.
The ‘supplementation’ mode, i.e. the establishment of relationships to other users that have
not yet been part of the expanded circle of friends, could be found in the survey only with
two male subjects. Both boys show a topical reference to one particular interest, which un-
derlines that ‘supplementation’ does not occur independently of topical reference. Indeed,
facebook offers a spatial structure to further develop certain interests.
– Limitation allows intense interaction.
The ‘limitation’ mode to restrict a selection of socio-spatial relations could be found only
with one female participant in the survey. The girl restricted her facebook contacts to cur-
rent and former friends and classmates and is not interested in expanding her network but
rather in maintaining her existing close friendships.
3 Restrictions and Expansions in Media Practices Related to Social Space
The findings of our survey make it clear that the media practices on facebook are relevant for
the identity formation of adolescents in various ways. The action contexts of teenagers have to
be analyzed with regard to their being embedded in transformation processes of society, as well
as with regard to the continuing convergence of media technology and content and in a context
of the mediatization of an increasing number of activity fields of everyday life. In this context,
we can focus and reflect on the restrictions and expansions in the socio-spatial media practices of
the youths and their relevance for identity formation.
5 The News Feed is part of the personalized homepage of each user. It displays the contacts‘ latest posts, activities, applications, etc. 6 This is how one of the survey participants described the social networking service facebook.
The transformation of the media world is perceived as an extension to the action options availa-
According to the participants in our survey, the current media world offers a variety of action
options. Most boys and girls associate social networking services with growing contact possibili-
ties with friends and more frequent meetings with peers but also with better access to all kinds
of interesting mass media content, semi-professional offerings and creative works published by
other users. With this positive evaluation of current media trends they do not only focus on
themselves but also on other groups of individuals. Contrary to this basically positive estimation,
the participants also deal with a perspective which makes their media practices more problemat-
ic: They assume that parents and teachers associate mainly problems, risks and dangers with the
media practices of the young. They realize that a space important to them and relevant to their
identity formation is seen as mainly problematic and associated with fears by the adults they
The relevance for identity formation is justified mainly in that the various areas of adolescents’
lives are interconnected via facebook.
Social networking services like facebook are characterized by the fact that they can be used for a
remarkable variety of motives. The results of the study show that the significance of facebook
for the identity formation of the young lies in this variability. This relevance is enhanced by the
fact that the use of these services expedites the mediatization of more and more areas of our
lives. These latest findings follow up on earlier studies on media-related identity formation in
adolescents (e.g. Wegener 2008 or Würfel & Keilhauer 2009). However, they also show new
trends, for instance in the identification of teenagers with media personalities or in their model-
ing themselves on medial examples. The results show that these forms of identity formation are
embedded in communicative contexts. This proves that not only media content is converging.
The identity formation via media use is also related to formerly separate areas of media enter-
tainment and mediatized communication forms. Based on this, adolescents perceive the social
networking service facebook as the action structure to deal with challenges of their lifeworld. In
this sense, they use facebook to span geographical distances between them and their attach-
ment figures or to deal with questions of gender identity.
The individualization of media practices runs parallel to the reconnection with collective prac-
Like few other media platforms, facebook symbolizes the progressive individualization of media
practices. Users get access to an individual mix of information and content – posts by fan pages
they subscribed to and apps they installed, as well as posts by their friends. However, the results
of the study also underline that this individualization is accompanied by collective media practic-
es and those which promote a sense of community. The mass media content continues to provide
collective reference points to implement social delimitation and signal social affiliation. The ori-
entation in the multitude of information and content in the social web also clearly shows collec-
tive practices. The maxim here is: ‘If it has lots of clicks, it is important.’ When the participants
scan their News Feed, they refer to the resonance it has already received from others as a
benchmark. Another influential factor in the assessment of content found in the social web is
the relationship the user has with the writer of the post. The analytical perspective on socio-
spatial media practices shows: socio-spatial affiliations are reconstructed in facebook via collec-
In the perception of adolescents, the variety of access to content poses opportunities and risks.
The participants appreciate that the social networking services provide access to those parts of
the variety and multitude of content which are relevant to them. Even though the youths cannot
always fully trace the origins of the content they use in the social web, it provides access to a
pool of information, which allows them to follow and strengthen their interests. They do how-
ever also perceive the problems in this dichotomy, and name for instance the confrontation with
disturbing or legally problematic content, illegally published content, or embarrassing photos
published of them. The problems and risks named by the youths can be located in already devel-
oped systemizations of content, contact or conduct-related risks (cf. Livingstone et al. 2010, YPRT
Some of the problem areas that become apparent in the interviews with the adolescents are
not identified as such by the youths, they are however relevant from a media pedagogical per-
In addition to the problem areas indicated by the participants, further challenges became appar-
ent, which were not identified by adolescents, but are important from a media pedagogical per-
spective. Three aspects are important:
– Firstly, gender-specific action types become apparent. While boys show quite offensive me-
dia practices to delimit their social positions through the use of insider codes, girls in partic-
ular want their self-representations to be clean and free of misunderstandings. It is mostly
boys who demonstrate self-assertive media practices and focus on their own interests in
their self-representation. With social fairness in view, we have to question the extent to
which adolescents online feel pressure to adjust to gender stereotypes. The media practices
described by girls in particular seem to be rather defensive and inhibited. This raises the
question as to whether facebook provides a fair basis “for the best personal development
and self-dependency” (Spatschek 2012).
– Secondly, the technological environment of the platform undermines the possibilities for
self-determined action of adolescents. The users of facebook have, for instance, no influ-
ence on and no insight into the internal data mining functionalities analyzing user activities.
These functionalities determine, amongst other things, the presentation of their News
Feeds. Thus, the platform sensitively intrudes into the users’ possibilities for making contacts
and interferes with the construction of the social spaces of the youths.
– Thirdly, in the self-portrayal of the adolescents and their interaction with others a certain
(self-) mediatization becomes obvious. Resonance games7 on facebook, which are popular
with some teenagers, show for instance, how adolescents obtain affiliation, social integra-
tion and recognition. Within those games it becomes clear, how far the mediatization of
almost all areas of young lives has advanced. In particular, it becomes clear how medial at-
tention factors and resonance mechanisms influence every day interaction patterns and re-
lationships of adolescents.
7 An example of these resonance games is ‚facebook Dare‘ or ‘facebook challenge’: A person posts: “I will do XY, but only if I get YZ likes for this post.” All their facebook contacts then have to decide, if that per- son should be made do XY by providing sufficient resonance.
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