“What does it mean? What can I do?” Social networks and identity experimentation in adolescence

Luca Milani, Francesca Brambilla, Emanuela Confalonieri

Abstract


This article investigates the relationship between experimentation on identity and use of Internet Forums in a sample of 126 Italian adolescents, who took part in 10 discussions. Data analysis combines quantitative methodology from Social Network Analysis and qualitative methodology from Thematic Analysis. Main objective of the research was to investigate whether participation in online social networks can be a resource for experimentation on adolescent identity and for the discussion of topics regarding the fulfilling of central developmental tasks in adolescence.

Qualitative analyses showed that the most recurrent themes addressed in the topics were: breakdown of significant relationships, definition of friendship, definition of love, positive and negative emotions, and coping strategies. Quantitative analyses showed that mean age of the participants is associated with a greater presence of contents relating to the breakdown: in the threads in which the mean age is lower, the mean of the contents of the breakdown is 14.33 vs. 2.40 for the discussions in which the mean age is higher (t = 4.14; p < 0.01). The number of cliques present in the discussions proves to be related with a greater presence of contents related to coping strategies used in difficulties: in the threads in which the number of cliques is higher, the mean of coping contents 65.54 vs. 45.39 for the discussions in which the number of cliques is lowest (t = 3.39; p < 0.01). Lastly, the level of betweenness centralization proves to be associated with a greater presence of contents relating to friendship: in the most centralized threads, the mean of friendship contents is 10.52 vs. 0.83 referring to the less centralized discussions (t = 2.26; p < 0.05).

These results show that online interactive styles do mirror those offline, and that communication covers identity-related and social recognition topics; moreover there it seems to be a correspondence between the more centralized interactive configurations and the contents discussed in the topics. The research confirms that the social network can be seen as a space for experimentation on identity among adolescents.


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