Checking in or checking out? Millennials go online to build their offline lives

Assistant professor Adriana Manago studies how young adults develop their identity and form relationships through technology and social media

Photo of Adriana Manago
Adriana Manago. (Photo by Melissa De Witte)

If you believed social media's critics, you would think new social-media technologies have created a generation more self-absorbed than ever before: narcissistic, distracted, and incapable of forming meaningful, real relationships as they Snapchat, Instagram, or Facebook their way out of social existence.

Instead, they are writing themselves into it, says Adriana Manago, an assistant professor of psychology at UC Santa Cruz who studies how adolescents and young adults turn to social media to establish their own agency and manage their relationships with their parents and peers.

As the most tech-savvy and connected generation begins college this year, Manago sees this generation as technological trailblazers rather than passive consumers.

“Young adults are digital pioneers,” says Manago.  

Technology is a tool they use to navigate their way to adulthood; they aren’t shying away from the responsibilities and emotions of growing up, she says.

Instead of isolating young adults from their offline life, going online is an extension of it, finds Manago in a recent study about how millennials use Facebook.

“An important part of growing up in the digital age is learning to value self-expression,”  says Manago, adding that young adults turn to social media to explore their place in the world around them.  

Social media use can make adolescents feel more connected because it can provide alternative spaces and places and for identity exploration. Teens are using technology to acquire more information and support than was possible in the pre-internet era.

For example, LGBTQ youth in rural areas report a better understanding of who they are thanks to the support of communities they find on social media, says Manago. Also, ethnic-minority adolescents find new insights into issues of race and ethnicity from slightly older peers. Facebook can even help shy people gather information about people they would like to know better at school.

Social media is just another way to connect with offline peers, Manago emphasizes.  

Rather than substituting face-to-face communication, social media is more like a bridge or scaffolding of the lives and identities of youth.  

Appreciating cultural and generational perspectives

“Today’s youth are navigating a world very different than their parents, and it’s important to remember that,” says Manago, pointing out that today’s college students are the first to experience their entire adolescence after the advent of social networking sites.

Undoubtedly, technology and social media have altered the ways people interact with the world.

But all that hyperbole and criticism about kids and technology? It needs to be put into perspective, urges Manago.

“People put their own values and biases onto how we see reality,” Manago says of the generational and cultural lenses used to view kids and their devices.  

Broader political, economic, and social changes provide context for today’s youth. As Beliot College’s annual Mindset List reports, this year’s matriculating college frosh have always known Donald Trump as a political figure, and a phone’s primary functions have always been message delivery, mapping, research, and games. For sophomores, the US has always been at war. Juniors just started kindergarten when the September 11 terror attacks occurred, and seniors never needed to go to a friend’s house to be able to study together.

“Youth are only adapting to this new era,” says Manago, whose earlier work has examined the value changes across generations that correspond with sociocultural changes toward a market economy in southern Mexico.

“Culture isn’t stationary,” adds Manago. “It’s always changing.”

Paradigm shifts and context collapse

Manago was in graduate school at UCLA, studying developmental psychology at the FPR-UCLA Center for Culture, Brain, and Development, when social media entered the mainstream.

“I was seeing culture changing all around me,” Manago remembers, recalling how MySpace—a social networking site that once surpassed Google as the most visited website in the country—became hugely popular. Facebook soon followed, along with other popular networking tools like Instagram and Snapchat.

Originally trained as a journalist, Manago was intrigued.

"It felt like the perfect time to study social change as it was happening,” she says.

One thing that stands out to Manago is a concept called “context collapse.”

Social media has opened up the possibility of unknown and infinite audiences, including potential employers, family members, teachers, school friends, and romantic partners.

In face-to-face communication, there are many ways to adapt one’s presentation. But online communication doesn’t offer that adaptability. There is only one way to present oneself to a diverse group of people.

Because of this context collapse, identity development can begin to resemble personal branding, as youth negotiate a public persona.

Young adults show elaborate and complex considerations of their online reputation with a new type of image management that is akin to marketing.

While social media offers many opportunities for social support and identity exploration, there are certainly problems youth must confront, including cyberbullying and increased self-consciousness. Manago has found that social media use can create a heightened awareness of one’s self, which can have consequences for body image in both men and women.

“Youth are no longer just consumers,” says Manago, “but also media producers, co-constructing online media environments to make them more precisely relevant to their personal needs and preferences than was possible with traditional media use.”