Adolescents’ Online And Offline Identity: A Study On Self-Representation


Adolescence represents a crucial period for the construction of personal and social identity. Nowadays, youths create their offline and online identity, as an undistinguishable and complex Self. Adolescents, indeed, construct their online identity as an integration of their physical and virtual persona. This integration might be difficult to represent and communicate to others. The Internet is widely spread among adolescents, and it can favour the development of risky online behaviours, which in turn can involve the occurrence of youth’s negative consequences, such as emotional problems, or difficulties in social behaviours. The present study intends to explore, in a sample of Italian adolescents, the capacity of representing the online and offline identity. This capacity is hypothesized to result in an adaptive use of the web. The sample was composed by 200 Italian adolescents, aged 14-17 years, who filled out an adhoc questionnaire tapping different aspects of representation of virtual reality. Adolescents revealed an unclear representation of their virtual identity. Because of their difficulties in identifying the relationship between the real and the virtual identity, the consequences of their activities in the web and in virtual communities are frequently underestimated. Identity and representation of the Self that adolescents express through social networks are very complex topics and the relationship between real and virtual identity needs further research, to carry out effective programs of prevention and intervention of problematic internet use in adolescence.

Keywords: Adolescenceonline behavioursvirtual identity


Adolescents’ identity: function and facets

Adolescence is a crucial developmental stage representing a critical period for the formation of

identity and lifestyle-related patterns. Adolescents, indeed, experience physical, mental, and social

interactional modifications during this period (Aghamolaei & Tavafian, 2013; Aubi, et al., 2012; Ernst,

Pine & Hardin, 2006). Moreover, relatively immature cognitive skills due to the incomplete maturation of

prefrontal cortex, make them particular vulnerable to affective disorders and addiction problems (Galvan

et al., 2006; Steinberg, 2005).

It is widely known that identity represents a key variable in adolescents’ development (Erickson,

1969; Marcia, 1966). Erikson (1969) first pointed out the formation of a coherent sense of identity as a

key developmental task in adolescence. Rooting on this pioneering theory, identity formation has been

hypothesized to involve complex dynamics and changes across the entire period of adolescence (Meeus,

2011; Paciello, Fida, Cerniglia, Tramontano, & Collie, 2012; Waterman, 1999). Studies and research in

this area have often been characterized by a debate on whether identity formation is shaped along change

or by stability (Van Hoof 1999). Moreover, the patterns of adolescents’ identity development have been

studied in several longitudinal studies, which have shown that personal identity develops progressively

during adolescence (Crocetti, Rubini, & Meeus, 2008; Kroger, 2007; Reinecke, 2006). Other studies

focused on the relation between identity and personality, and on the link between identity and

psychological well-being (Lichtwarck-Aschoff, van Geert, Bosma, & Kunnen, 2008; Meeus, Iedema,

Maassen, & Engels, 2005; Roberts, Caspi, & Moffitt, 2001).

Adolescents and information and communication technologies (ICTs)

It is worth noting that, the fragile process of identity formation, together whit the set of

psychobiological and relational changes characterizing adolescence, may imply the onset of risk and

problem behaviours (Eaton et al., 2012). Indeed, The Internet and other information and communication

technologies (ICTs; such smartphones for instance) are widely spread among adolescents, and they seem

to cover emotional and communication adolescents’ needs (Dolev-Cohen & Barak, 2013; Valkenburg &

Peter, 2011). On the other hand, ICTs can also favour the development of risky online behaviours during

adolescence, which in turn can involve the occurrence of youth’s negative consequences, such as

emotional problems, or difficulties in social behaviours (Valcke, De Wever, Van Keer, & Schellens,


Adolescents’ drive to express and share with peers their identity (intended as psychological,

behavioural and physical characteristics) has been defined as the main motivation behind youths’

behaviour (Erickson, 1969). Since the internet can be considered as a very powerful means of expression

of the self, many adolescents nowadays reveal personal information, such as age, gender, orientations

(Subrahmanyam, Smahel, & Greenfield, 2006). However, the process of identity formation can be

unstable and tumultuous and adolescents can shift from one web-based identity to another very rapidly

and unpredictably. In this regard, researchers demonstrated that the use of the Internet for socializing with

peers is quickly increasing (Lenhart, Madden, Macgill, & Smith, 2007; Madden, Smith, & Vitak, 2007),

with youths aged between 12 to 20 years presenting themselves as members of the opposite sex on the

Internet on some social networks (Smahel, 2005).

Problem Statement

Adolescents on line identity and major risky online behaviours

As pointed out by Pisano and Cadau, the notion of virtual identity refers to a complex system of

images, videos and written information posted by Internet user in social networks with the intent of

representing themselves as unique and unmistakable digital subjects (Pisano & Cadau, 2013).

As noted above, personal digital devices and the Internet are increasingly popular among

adolescents, who use various communication technologies and informatics tools, such as MySpace,

Facebook, Twitter for many leisure-time activities (Pujazon-Zazik & Park, 2010). The Internet is

worldwide popular among adolescents, from the Western societies (Macur, Király, Maraz, Nagygyörgy,

& Demetrovics, 2016; Tam & Walter, 2013; Van Rooij & Van den Eijnden, 2007) to Eastern countries

(Cao, Sun, Wan, Hao, & Tao, 2011), and it is an even more favourite everyday activity than watching TV.

As regards to gender differences in adolescent online activities, females seem to prefer using instant

messaging, posting pictures and cultivating their online profile, while males seem to more frequently

posting videos (Kowalski & Limber, 2007).

Despite the fact that for many young people the Internet has become an almost indispensable tool

for social interaction, entertainment, moving into homes, schools and workplaces, it can also imply

potential adverse effects, such as Internet addiction and pathological Internet use (Nemati, & Matlabi,

2017). In fact, a growing body of research has focused on this public issue (Cerniglia et al., 2016).

Several studies focused on specific populations. For example, online gaming resulted to be highly

prevalent among Lithuanian adolescents’ health (Festl, Scharkow, & Quandt, 2013; Ustinavičienė, 2016).

Similarly, Problematic Internet use (PIU), defined as use of the Internet that leads to psychological and

social difficulties (Beard & Wolf, 2001) is a growing problem in Chinese adolescents (Cao et al., 2011).

In Europe the prevalence has been reported to be between 1% and 9% (Siomos, Dafouli, Braimiotis &

Mouzas, 2008; Zboralski et al., 2009) while in Asia it has been reported to be between 2% and 18%

(Park, Kim & Cho, 2008).

The increased possibility of non-domestic Internet connections constitute a serious concern in

adolescents’ parents, who worry about possible health consequences from an excessive Internet use they

cannot control (Subrahmanyam et al., 2006; Wang, Bianchi, & Raley, 2005).

Given that parental monitoring is a key protective variable against adolescent risky behaviours and

maladaptive outcomes (Cimino, Cerniglia, & Paciello, 2014; Tambelli, Cerniglia, Cimino, & Ballarotto,

2015) it is sensible to hypothesize that adolescents’ Internet use may put them at significant risk, if not

kept under observation (Muñoz-Miralles et al., 2016). In this regard, unfortunately, a growing body of

literature supports the opinion that as well as the problematic Internet use, youth are also exposed to

cyberbullying perpetration, and meeting strangers online or sexual predators, unwanted exposure to

pornography (Malesky, 2007; Mitchell, Ybarra, & Finkelhor, 2007).

During the last decades, an increasing attention has been paid to the potential impact of online

social activities on psychological well-being and a broadening body of studies has focused on multiple

factors associated with people’s mental health outcomes.

At present, most research on adults and young people’s virtual identity has highlighted that the

information posted by web surfers in the social networks, such as, photo, video, texts or comments are

related to individual traits of personality (Hughes, Rowe, Batey, & Lee, 2012; Marshall, Lefringhausen,

& Ferenczi, 2015; Seidman, 2013; Stoughton, Thompson, & Meade, 2013). Consequently, not all online

activities should be considered “causal” or “accidental” activities, since they can represent symbols or

symptoms connected to the real identity. Moreover, several researchers have demonstrated the effect of

narcissism on behaviours exhibited in the virtual world (Andreassen, Pallesen, & Griffiths, 2016; Lee &

Sung, 2016). In addition, a positive correlation between poor mental health and frequent use of social

networks during developmental age has been evidenced (Sampasa-Kanyinga & Lewis, 2015). Other

works have shown a significant interaction between adolescents’ well-being, social self-esteem and the

use of social networks (Valkenburg, Peter, & Schouten, 2006) as well as a significant correlation between

negative emotions and status exhibited on Facebook (Liu, Tov, Kosinski, Stillwell, & Qiu, 2015). Still,

Baker & Algorta (2016) founded a non-significant relation between depressive symptoms and use of

social networks.

In this complex scenario, it has become clear that adolescents deserve special consideration for the

study of their process of constructing offline and online identity as an undistinguishable and complex


Research Questions

While the above studies have explored the points of contact and divergence between the real and

the virtual identity, to our knowledge less attention has been devoted to adolescents’ Self-representation,

that is the ability to ponder up on the representations of the Self manifested in the virtual world. Although

the interdependence between "real identity” and “virtual identity" has been widely demonstrated, many

young people appear capable of describing their actions in the virtual world (chatting, posting, sharing

materials) but they are lacking the ability to understand that online behaviour is a projection of their real

identity (self-consciousness). If they had this capacity, adolescents would be able to navigate responsibly

and safely.

Overall, the absence of studies on the formation and evolution of adolescents’ self-representation

in the virtual world, does not favour the development of research programs aimed at understanding how

the representations of the self, which is also connected with the quality of the experiences in the digital

world, may lead to original and coherent virtual identity.

Purpose of the Study

Based on the aforementioned literature, our study was developed to shed light on adolescents’

Self-representation in the virtual world. More specifically, taking into account previous literature, the

current study sought to provide a comprehensive view on adolescents’ online and offline identity, by

examining various aspects of representation of virtual reality. This study only focuses on the use of the

Internet for communicating. It intends to explore, in a sample of adolescents in the general population, the

capacity of representing their online and offline identity. This capacity is hypothesized to result in an

adaptive use of the web.

We hypothesized that a higher understanding of the relationship of interdependence between the

information adolescents publish online (virtual identity) and their personality traits (real identity) is

associated with a higher capacity to protect themselves during the networking activities.

Research Methods

A cross-sectional design was applied for the purposes of the study.

Subject and procedure

We conducted a semi-qualitative study on adolescents’ Self-representation, assessing a sample of

N = 200 subjects, 110 males and 90 females, ranged in age from 13 to 19 years. The research subjects

were recruited in schools of Central Italy, in the period between April and June 2015. All participants

voluntary took part in the study and did not receive reward. They were administered an ad-hoc

questionnaire tapping different aspects of representation of virtual reality (psychological, relational and

social characteristics). The following socio-demographic characteristics were obtained: age, gender,

residential background (urban or rural areas), area and self-reported family economy.

Students who took part in this research were 51% male, aged 13 to 19 years. Ninety-nine percent

of participants were Caucasian. More than half (59.5%) of the students came from urban areas. Most

students (66.0%) reported average family socio-economical status. All participants completed the

protocol without any attrition.

The questionnaire was distributed to all study participants in class during school time.

Each of the subjects, after their parents’ written authorizations, received the questionnaire in a

closed envelope and a letter with a brief description of the study. The teachers were not present during the

assessment, in order to minimize any potential information bias. The time required to complete the

questionnaire was 30–40 minutes. Data collection was carried out by research assistants. Before the start

of the study, permission was obtained from the Ethical Committee of the Medicine and Psychology

Faculty at Sapienza, University of Rome, in accordance with the Declaration of Helsinki.


Assessing adolescent’s Self-representation

We created an ad hoc a self-administered questionnaire containing information on socio-

demographic indicators and Internet use. The questionnaire is a 41 item self-report scale, assessing

different aspects of virtual identity. It is composed of four sections. Respondents were asked to indicate

the frequency of the various behaviours and activities expressed in each statement, on a 5-point Likert

scale, from 1 = never, to 5 = always. The section Intra- and inter-system consistency assesses the ability

to post various contents (photos, videos, comments) in the same or different social networks and is

composed of 8 items; the section Protection, assessing the capacity to protect one’s virtual identity,

includes 17 items. The section Sense of the virtual Self assesses the awareness of being able to act, to

decide, to feel emotions and to remember what has been accomplished and experienced online; it is

composed of 8 items. Finally, the section Categorization of virtual identity aims to assess the ability to

understand that the contents published in a social network, such as photos, video, images, text or

comments, can be related to the real identity; it includes 8 items.

High scores to questions belonging to the section Sense of the virtual Self, together with low

scores on the section Categorization of virtual identity may be indicative of an adolescents’ unclear

representation of their virtual identity.

Statistical analysis

The quantitative data were analysed using the simple statistical indices such as Student’s t-test, χ².

Data were analysed using SPSS software, version 22.00.


Overall, our findings revealed an unclear representation of their virtual identity in adolescents

study participants.

The research showed that the majority of the surveyed adolescents, aged between thirteen and

nineteen years, were frequently not able to conceptualize their virtual identity, being incapable of

grasping and defining the interdependence between their real and virtual identities. The posts, chats,

photos and videos are only "rarely or sometimes" considered manifestations of the real identity.

Adolescents, on the other hand, seem to have an awareness of their “being online”, showing to be

aware of actions and emotions they experience during their online social life.

However, adolescents’ virtual identity results poorly integrated, since youths do not consider the

posts, videos and photos they share online as symbols of their persona.

Regarding the section Intra- and inter-system consistency, adolescents seem not consistent in their

networking activities. For instance, only 10% of respondents refer to often or always publishing the same

content in Facebook as in other social networks. Similarly, only the 25% of respondents consider "often

or always" the content of their last posting before posting a new message, whereas about 30% of subjects

"often or always" try to make others understand their values, in order to bring out a distinctive feature of

their identity.

Regarding the section "Protection", the adolescents’ ability to protect themselves appears

insufficiently articulated. Indeed, about 30% of subjects reported being involved in cyberbullying,

whereas half of the subjects often use foul language in their public comments. Moreover, analyses of the

characteristics of adolescents engaged in online activities revealed that while more than half participants

reported “often or always” thinking about reputation before publishing to Facebook, far fewer subjects

think "often or always" before posting in other social networks (30%). Therefore, in general, many young

people think they can post or publish contents online without particular consequences for their reputation

online. Finally, our data identified that at least one student out of ten performs activities that may

seriously affect their reputation. Ten students reported that they “often” posted photos or videos in which

is possible to see the body. Overall, 11% of the students practice a form of sexting.

With regards to the section of Sense of the Virtual Self, the majority of adolescents tends to have a

good awareness of their actions and emotions. They also remember what they have experimented online.

For instance, more than 80% of participants evaluate the possible offensive content of their post and

communications. Many of them, similarly, are able to understand if someone could feel bad because of

their posts.

Finally, with respect to section Categorization of virtual identity, students fail to represent their

virtual identity. Indeed, despite about the 70% of respondents believe that the personality shown in

everyday life has something in common with the identity they show online, only for 25% of them

published posts, pictures and videos may express something of their personality or way of being. Thus,

for almost the entire sample, posts, photos and videos do give access to their real personality. More in

particular, not being able to conceptualize that the posts, chats, videos and photos are the

phenomenological dimension through which their identity manifests online, students felt that these online

posting do not reflect something of their values and their character.


Starting from previous literature on adolescents’ online social activities, the present study aimed to

explore the Internet use and the self-representation characteristics among adolescents. More specifically,

the current study intended to investigate the capacity of pondering on the self-representations in the

virtual world in a sample of N = 200 Italian adolescents.

Data emerged from our study confirmed the results of previous studies, according to which adults

and minors do not have a clear representation of their virtual identity, nor of the interdependence between

online and offline identity. Moreover, our results have shown that adolescents of our sample frequently

underestimate the consequences of their activities in the web and in virtual communities, probably

because of their difficulties in identifying the relationship between the real and the virtual identity,

Our findings are consistent with recent observations by Fullwood, James and Chen-Wilson (2016),

who highlighted that adolescents who have a poorly integrated identity and self-representation are more

prone to manifest an idealized version of themselves in the Internet, while youths with a more stable (and

therefore more self-aware) self-representation have a more coherent and unitary self-representation.

Our research subjects seem to be aware of their behaviours and emotions during their online social

activities, showing what we could call Sense of virtual self, paraphrasing Stern (1987). On the other hand,

adolescents involved in on line activities are not always able to reflect on the relationship between real

identity and virtual identity on the web. In this sense, we could compare the digital natives, who have

come in recent years to the virtual world, to new-born babies who, through their relationship with

significant adults, gradually build their Self, through consistent and recurring interactive patterns,.

Identity and representation of the Self that adolescents express through social networks are very

complex topics and the relationship between real and virtual identity needs further research, to carry out

effective programs of prevention and intervention of problematic internet use in adolescence and

maladaptive behaviour in general (Erriu, 2016; Morioka et al., 2017).

Health care professionals should try to better understand adolescent online activities, as youth need

guidance on safe Internet use. Given the dangers associated with risk online behaviour, clinicians and

professionals should deeply discuss problematic Internet use with adolescent patients and their parents.

A number of limitations of this study warrant discussion. The main limitation involves the use of a

self-report, not widely validated questionnaire. Although questionnaires are the most appropriate

instruments by which to gather information on subjective processes, such as identity, the biases involved

in self-reports may be taken into account. Thus, caution is recommended before generalizing the results of

the present study. Nonetheless, our results offer an interesting interpretation to frame the issue of

adolescents’ virtual identity. Firm conclusions about our research question cannot be made. Moreover,

our results also require further testing in a wider cultural context.


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08 May 2017

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Psychology, clinical psychology, psychotherapy, abnormal psychology

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Pisano, L., Mastropasqua, I., Cerniglia, L., Erriu, M., & Cimino, S. (2017). Adolescents’ Online And Offline Identity: A Study On Self-Representation. In Z. Bekirogullari, M. Y. Minas, & R. X. Thambusamy (Eds.), Clinical & Counselling Psychology - CPSYC 2017, vol 22. European Proceedings of Social and Behavioural Sciences (pp. 15-25). Future Academy.