Bryant Paul & Lelia Samson. Adolescent Online Social Communication and Behavior: Relationship Formation on the Internet. Hershey, PA: Information Science Reference, 2010.
Adolescence is a period of great psychological and social transformation. Puberty is a major developmental milestone of adolescence. The changes occurring during puberty signal the transition into adolescence from childhood. These changes are initiated by the synthesis and release of various steroid hormones. This in turn results in the onset of secondary sexual characteristics as well as often striking changes in individuals’ mood, positive affect, sensation seeking and behavior (Petersen, Silbereisen, & Sorenson, 1996, p. 5). It is with this sometimes tumultuously transitioning brain that adolescents are often forced to develop a new sense of self identity; one befit for a world suddenly marked by so much physical, social, and psychological change. Given all of the chemical, biological, and (related) psychological changes occurring during adolescence it should come as little surprise that the development of one’s sexual self-identity is one of the most complex experiences marking the period of transition from childhood to adulthood.
Researchers have long accepted that one of the primary tasks of adolescence is the development of a sense of self or identity (Erikson, 1968). This includes development on the part of individuals of a sense of how they fit into their social and physical worlds, as well as a perception of how they are perceived in those worlds by others. A fundamental part of the construction of every young person’s self-definition is the development of a sexual identity (Buzwell & Rosenthal, 1996; Chilman, 1983; Gagnon & Simon, 1987). According to Buzwell and Rosenthal (1996), sexual identity, in addition to an individual’s sexual preferences, perceptions of masculinity and femininity, or what they perceive to be appropriate or inappropriate sexual behaviors, also includes “…an individual’s perception of his or her ‘qualities’ in the sexual domain” or “…their perceptions of the sexual self“(p. 490). These preferences and perceptions, it is argued, are largely a function of, among other things, the interplay between an individuals’ psychological constitution and their social experiences (De-Lamater & Friedrich, 2002; Sisk, 2006). Key to understanding the development of adolescent sexual identity is therefore a consideration of both the structure of the adolescent mind and the nature and types of information and experiences upon which individuals rely in constructing this dimension of their self concept.
Although media have long been assumed to have a primary role in the process of sexual socialization (for reviews, see Escobar-Chaves et al., 2005; Ward, 2003; see also, Brown, 2000), recent research has demonstrated that the Internet is a particularly powerful source of information for young people regarding issues of sexual identity (Bremer & Rauch, 1998; Kraus & Russell, 2008; Peter & Valkenburg, 2008; Suzuki & Calzo, 2004). Adolescents have been found to frequently use the Internet to communicate about and explore their sexualities. This includes everything from the discussion of a broad range of sexual topics, to virtual dating, to participating in episodes of “virtual sex” (Subrahmanyam, Greenfield & Tynes, 2004; Subrahmanyam, Smahel, & Greenfield, 2006).
The current chapter argues that adolescents’ growing reliance on the Internet as a source of information exchange, entertainment, and potential social networking (both of a sexual and nonsexual nature) means that it is playing an increasingly important role in the development of young peoples’ sexual identities. Any understanding of contemporary sexual identity development must therefore include a consideration of the role of the Internet in this process. Further, we argue that specific attention must be given to understanding how various characteristics associated with the unique technological nature of the Internet are likely to be processed by, and influential on the distinctive adolescent mind. An understanding of this interaction will allow researchers, clinicians, and educators to better aid adolescents in effectively preparing for, and dealing with the process of sexual identity construction in today’s world.
Adolescents’ Use of the Internet
Data from the United States and the United Kingdom indicate that the amount of time adolescents spend online has continued to increase since the Internet first became publicly available in the early 1990’s (Jackson, 2008; Livingstone et al., 2005). The number of teenagers using the Internet grew 24% between the years 2000 and 2004 (PEW, 2005). Recent research by the Pew Internet and American Life Project (2007) indicates that overall, 93% of adolescents use the Internet, particularly as a venue for social interaction. Sixty-one percent of the teens interviewed in the Pew study reported going online as part of their daily routine in 2006, with 34% of those claiming multiple daily use. Addditional research has found older adolescents (those ages 15-17) more likely to go online than younger adolescents (Jackson, 2008).
Though they often have different reasons for doing so, male and female adolescents have been found to be equally as likely to go online in general (PEW, 2007). Females, for example, are significantly more likely than males to access and contribute to blogs, whereas males were twice as likely as females to post content to video-sharing sites such as YouTube. A majority of all teens however, reported watching videos on video sharing sites.
Adolescents report high levels of use of a wide range of pursuits on the Internet. Certain online activities are more popular with this age group than others. Activities in which a majority of adolescent Internet users claim to participate include E-mailing, viewing entertainment news websites, playing games, instant messaging, creating or accessing user-created content, getting information about education, visiting chat rooms, visiting social networking sites, gathering information on politics, and downloading music (PEW, 2005). Research suggests the majority of adolescent online pursuits fall into one of five general categories (Gross, 2004; Roberts et al., 2005; Seiter, 2005). These include communication, information, entertainment, self-expression, and escape. Importantly however, adolescents consistently report their most common reason for using the Internet as communicating with their peers (Bargh & McKenna, 2004; Boneva et al., 2006; Gross, 2004; Jackson, 2008; PEW, 2007; Roberts et al., 2005).
Data from a national study of U.S. adolescents in the indicate that nearly 55% of teens maintain a profile on a social networking site, such as MySpace or Facebook (PEW, 2007). Further, adolescents appear to take an ‘in for a dime, in for a dollar’ approach to social networking sites; with a wide majority of those reporting use of social networking sites also reporting that they read the blogs of others (70%) and have posted comments to a friend’s blog (76%) on those sites. Regardless of whether or not they participate in social networking websites specifically, research has consistently shown that maintaining and expanding ones social network is a primary objective and activity among adolescents (For a review see Jackson, 2008).
Clearly the role of the Internet in adolescents’ lives continues to expand. Although adolescent Internet use has been found to supplement— rather than replace—the use of more traditional forms of communication (Subrahmanyam et al., 2000), the characteristics of the adolescent mind such that the unique features of the Internet make it a particularly important tool in the potentially difficult process of adolescent sexual identity construction. In the next section we consider how the adolescent mind is theoretically likely to process and be influenced by online information in constructing a sexual self-identity.
Approaching Adolescent Sexual Identity Development Theoretically
Research focusing on the development of sexuality has focused on two primary categories of theoretical perspectives: essentialist theories and social constructionist theories (DeLamater & Hyde, 1998; Moore & Rosenthal, 2006). Put perhaps overly simplistically, essentialism focuses more on biological processes in sexuality, whereas social constructionist perspectives place more attention on the role of culture. More specifically, essential-ists work from the perspective that certain phenomena are largely a function of natural or biological processes. Essentialist theoretical perspectives, including evolutionary psychology and Erickson’s (1968) eight stages of human development, focus primarily on the important functions of genetics and biological factors in shaping sexual identity and behavior (for a review see Moore & Rosenthal, 2006). Social constructionists, on the other hand, emphasize the role of individual interpretations of their own experiences in predicting sexual attitudes and behaviors. Perspectives falling into this category, such as sexual scripts theory (Gagnon & Simon, 1973; Simon & Gagnon, 1986) and various discourse analytic approaches, tend to argue that sexuality is a fluid, complex, and largely learned social construct; and that it is strongly influenced by the interpretation of both sexual and nonsexual cultural experiences. Although most scholars working from either perspective typically acknowledge the basic existence, and potential influence of both the social and biological in the process of sexual identity development, they differ significantly on the emphasis they place on these dimensions (Moore & Rosenthal, 2006).
It has been argued that the differences in ontological and epistemological assumptions underlying the essentialist and social constructionist perspectives make their fusion difficult (DeLameter & Hyde, 1998; Moore & Rosenthal, 2006). Both have their critics and supporters. As Moore and Rosenthal (2006) point out however, the purpose of good theory in the current context is to provide
“…new insights and new ways of viewing and understanding [sexual] behavior. They help us forge conceptual links between the plethora of data available on teenagers’ sexual behavior, attitudes, knowledge and beliefs…What is important is that we view these theoretical approaches not as static, but as developing frameworks that can eventually lead to better integration of research data, case material, common sense and personal experience” (p. 65).
It is with this in mind that we take what has been called a biosocial approach in attempting to best understand the development of adolescent sexuality generally and the role of the Internet and social networking technology in the process of adolescent sexual socialization and identity construction specifically.
The Adolescent mind and Sexual Self-Identity
Developmental psychologists have postulated that human psychosocial development occurs in a series of ordered stages. Erickson (1968), for instance, argued that there are eight distinct developmental stages of human development, which collectively span from birth to death. According to Erickson, individuals can only effectively move from an earlier stage to a later one by successfully fulfilling the developmental works or tasks that are required as part of the earlier stage. The perspective holds that a failure to complete the relevant developmental tasks in an earlier stage will likely result in difficulties fulfilling other tasks in later stages. So for instance, a toddler (stage 2) that fails to develop self-esteem, perhaps due to being consistently stifled by adults or an older sibling when attempting to master certain simple, yet important physical skills, may fail to develop the healthy sense of autonomy needed to successfully initiate play with others when they are a preschooler (stage 3).
Significant changes in brain structure occur during puberty and continue into early adulthood. These structural changes have been shown to impact various cognitive abilities in adolescents. For instance, increased frontal lobe development, pruning of the white matter, increased axon myelination, changes in the dopamine inputs and the limbic system have all been documented to occur during puberty.
Sisk (2006) emphasizes the importance of the “organizational role of gonadal steroid hormones, which become elevated during puberty, in sculpting the adolescent brain and programming adult sexual behavior” (p. 10). The initial synthesis and release of the gonadotropin-releasing hormone (GNRH) and Luteinizing-hormone releasing hormone (LHRH) within the hypothalamic neurons (Sisk et al., 2006) activates the secretion of pituitary gonadotropins, luteinizing hormones (LH), and follicle-stimulating hormones (FSH).
Together, these regulate the development, growth, pubertal maturation, and reproductive processes of the human body. They do so by triggering the release of the gonadal hormones testosterone, progesterone, and estrogen. Importantly, these steroid hormones are responsible for the organizational remodeling of neural circuits underlying sexuality during puberty (Sisk et al., 2006). In addition to “sculpting” the adolescent brain, pubertal hormones are also responsible for activating sexually differentiated nervous system responses that facilitate the expression of sexual behavior in specific social contexts. Based on this perspective, Sisk (2006) argues against a simplistic causational model of individual differences in sexual behaviors in adulthood, and instead supports a model focusing on the complex three-way interaction between pubertal hormones, the adolescent brain, and social experience (p. 11).
Intricately related to sexuality, emotional reactions undergo tumultuous changes during adolescence. There are striking changes in mood, positive affect, sensation seeking, and behavior, (Petersen et al., 1996) all of which are possibly explained by the neurophysiological transformations within the mesolimbic system (the brain region associated with emotional reactions). Parts of the ‘mammalian’ or emotional brain, the amygdala, the hippocampus, and the caudate nucleus significantly increase in volume, connectivity, and activation during adolescence (Benes, 1989; 1998; Giedd et al., 1997). These structural changes may explain adolescents’ tendency toward intuitive appraisals of emotional stimuli based on ‘gut feelings’ rather than complex cognitive consideration, as well as their increased difficulty with impulse control.
These critical changes are accompanied by dramatic neurocognitive transformations in the higher cortical areas. The adolescent brain undergoes significant structural and functional changes, particularly in areas associated with higher cognition (Casey et al., 2005). A number of researchers have documented a significant decrease in gray-matter density in the prefrontal cortex during this developmental period (Gogtay et al., 2004; Sowell et al., 2004; Toga et al., 2006). It has been suggested that a rapid expansion in gray-matter volume results in a subsequently lower density. A possible interpretation is that during this period the juvenile neural systems are being pruned to allow for a cognitive metamorphosis into a leaner, more elastic brain (Toga et al., 2006). It results in more functionally efficient associations between abstract cognitive concepts during adolescence and adulthood. According to Toga and colleagues (2006), the exuberant increase in brain connections occurring during childhood “…is followed by an enigmatic process of dendritic ‘pruning’ and synapse elimination, which leads to a more efficient set of connections that are continuously remodeled throughout life” (p. 148). The dramatic losses in white-matter indicate a culling of the juvenile synapses, resulting in a metamorphosis into a more plastic brain.
It can be argued that this loss of fixed juvenile associations allows for more open associations, necessary for abstract thinking and for the development of postconventional reasoning. The processes described above offer a possible neural foundation for the characteristic theorized by Erikson to manifest during the 5th stage of psychosocial development: challenges to conventional authority, pre-existent morals, and social structures (Erikson, 1968). It links with other characteristics identified by Erikson (1968) as typical of this stage of psychosocial development: autonomy and rebellion against authority figures or ready-made adult models (Erikson, 1968).
It has also been found that cortical activity in ventral PFC changes from diffuse in childhood to more focal activation during late adolescence (Casey et al., 2005; Durston et al., 2002). That is, task-related activations become more finely-tuned and efficient, while task-unrelated associations are eliminated. Findings have shown this process to be positively correlated with both age and performance on learning tasks (Casey et al., 2005; Durston et al., 2002). Strengthening the relevant connections and culling the excessive and redundant ones also contributes to the plasticity of the adolescent brain, resulting in an efficient ability to ‘think freely.’
Childhood is distinguished from young adolescence by the extreme biological, psychological, and social changes occurring rapidly within and around the individual (Brooks-Gunn, 1988; Brooks-Gunn & Paikoff, 1997). Adolescence therefore becomes a period during which young people are forced to develop a sense of who they are in the face of significant competing external and internal influences. They do this by turning to what must seem like a rapidly changing world and attempting to make sense of it with a mind, which, as discussed above, is going through a serious and fundamental transition of its own.
Erickson (1968) argues that the primary tasks associated with the adolescent stage of development (stage 5) have to do with defining ones identity as an individual in a greater society. Given this confluence of factors, it is not surprising that adolescence is the period during which individuals often experience what Erickson refers to as their first significant crisis of identity. This crisis, often results in a seemingly paradoxical response on the part of adolescents, wherein the individual will seek individuality by identifying strongly with specific groups or cliques. The tendency is for members of this age group to develop a mistrust of what they perceive as traditional adult models and authority figures. They come instead to rely on their peers more than ever before for information about how the world works and what role they are expected to play in it.
Not surprisingly, great development in individuals’ sexual self-identities tends to occur during adolescence. Bodily changes during puberty “… include physical growth, growth in genitals and girls’ breasts, and development of facial and pubic hair. These changes signal to the youth and to others that he or she is becoming sexually mature” (DeLamater & Friedrich, 2002, p. 11). Rapidly changing bodies and a related sudden increase in sexual interest combine to increase the relevance of adolescents’ sense of their sexual selves. As a result adolescence is a key period of psychosocial development, during which the potential psychological and social impact of information of a sexual nature can be expected to increase significantly. Research suggests this information has a significant impact on the construction of adolescents’ sexual self-identity (Buzwell & Rosenthal, 1996; Farrar, 2006). It should probably also be noted that although many adolescents may already have a stored set of information of a sexual nature based on pre-adolescent experiences with sexual information and behaviors, newly experienced sexual information is likely to take on a previously unobserved relevance in the quickly changing adolescent mind.
The development of a sexual identity is a central component of the construction of the adolescent self concept. Biological changes resulting from the onset of puberty initiate, and interact with changes in the social forces with which adolescents are forced to cope. The sudden changes occurring during adolescence in terms of cognition, anatomy and social pressures make it a period during which information about sexually normative behavior is fundamentally influential. The information and experiences of adolescents serve then, of necessity, as the primary foundation upon which their sexual schemas will be based (Gagnon & Simon, 1973). Normative beliefs about what it means to be sexual, how one is supposed to express gender identity, proper sexual relationship management, and what are appropriate and inappropriate sexual attitudes and behaviors are all influenced by the nature of this information and these experiences. With greater information, number of experiences, and subsequent considerations of both, so too are expected to develop more complex sexual schemas. The consistency of these schemas, along with individual differences, in terms of motivations for seeking information and for going through various sexual episodes, will influence how one processes this information and these experiences. Thus a cyclical process of constant sexual identity development is expected to occur, by which newly encountered information is processed and reacted to by minds which are constantly being shaped and reshaped by those experiential phenomena. As an individual’s sexual schemas become more complex, we can expect specific information and incidents to have a declining impact on their overall sexual identity. As a result, the period of adolescence, particularly early adolescence, during which sexual schemas are relatively undeveloped and malleable, must be viewed as a key period of sexual identity development.
The Internet and Development of Adolescent Sexual Self-Identity
As has been demonstrated above, the Internet has become a central source of social information and a primary means of social interaction for adolescents. Its role in the sexual socialization of young person’s can therefore only be increasing. Only through continuing to study the manner by which adolescents interact in, and consume and process information provided by the Internet and other social networking technologies can researchers and clinicians hope to continue to better understand and potentially positively influence the development of their sexual identities.
As an opportunity for social exploration and networking the Internet holds the potential to play an enormous role in the development of adolescent sexual identities. Research has consistently shown that both peers and media play a significant role in the formation of adolescents’ sexual attitudes, beliefs and behaviors (Berndt & Savin-Williams, 1993; Brown, 2000; Brown et al., 2006; Connolly, Furman, & Konarski, 2000; Kallen, Stephenson & Doughty, 1983; Kraus & Russell, 2008; Lefkowitz, Boone, & Shearer, 2004; L’Engle, et al., 2006; Martino et al., 2005; Taylor, 2005). The multimedia, networked nature of the Internet means that it offers greater connectivity between peers, as well as access to content from more traditional media sources than any pre-existing medium. Further, the perceived anonymity and ease of access afforded by the Internet makes it an ideal place for seeking and/or sharing sensitive information about sex and sexuality (Huffaker & Calvert, 2005). In other words, it offers a heretofore unseen gateway to sexual socialization.
Development of Sexually Normative Attitudes and Behaviors
Perhaps it is the ubiquity of the Internet in the lives of today’s adolescents that represents its greatest power. According to Livingtone (2008), “…for teenagers, the online realm may be adopted enthusiastically because it represents ‘their’ space, visible to the peer group more than to adult surveillance, an exciting yet relatively safe opportunity to conduct the social psychological task of adolescence…” (p. 397). For adolescents, the online world is a small, but very significant part of the real world. Information about social or behavioral norms obtained through online interactions with others they think are the same age, and who they believe are experiencing the same fears, questions, and insecurities as they are themselves are highly influential on their worldview and likely behaviors. Although the average adolescent no doubt discounts some of the information they receive from online sources as a result of perceptions of source credibility, such information possesses many of the characteristics (i.e., a source perceived as similar to the self; the apparent lack of adult monitoring and supervision by which it is distributed) likely to make it highly impactful.
Although scant empirical research has considered the effects of exposure to online sexually explicit materials on adolescent sexual beliefs, attitudes, and predicted behaviors, recent findings suggest such exposure is becoming a growing concern. Data suggest that an increasing number of adolescents are consuming sexually explicit online material (Brown & L’Engle, 2009; Flood, 2007; Kraus & Russell, 2008; Lo & Wei, 2005; Peter & Valkenburg, 2006; 2008; Wolak, Mitchell & Finkelhor, 2007). Recent survey research by Peter and Valkenburg (2008) and Kraus and Russell (2008) suggests that this exposure is positively correlated with levels of sexual uncertainty and positive attitudes toward early and uncommitted sexual behaviors. These findings seem to be in line with previous research demonstrating a relationship between higher levels of exposure to sexually explicit content online and more sexually permissive attitudes (Lo & Wei, 2005; Peter & Valkenburg, 2006). Research by Brown and L’Engle (2009) found that early exposure to sexually explicit content in adolescents predicted less progressive gender role attitudes and even an increased likelihood of sexual activity for both male and female respondents.
Moreover, consumption of sexual media has been shown to increase erroneous beliefs on the part of adolescents regarding peers’ sex-related norms, attitudes and permissiveness (Brown & L’Engle, 2009; Chia & Lee, 2008). Further, these misperceptions have been found to indirectly influence adolesents’ own personal levels of reported sexual permissiveness. Although the nature of this research precludes the establishment of the causal nature of this relationship, such findings seem to fit well into a perspective stressing the potential for adolescents to be learning sexual scripts from their exposure to sexually explicit online content.
The high levels of accessibility, interactivity, and perceived anonymity of the Internet make it a particularly valuable resource for adolescents dealing with the potentially sensitive issue of sexual identity. Huffaker and Calvert (2005) argue that “the internet has provided a new context for identity exploration, as the virtual world provides a venue to explore a complex set of relationships that is flexible and potentially anonymous.” In line with this idea, Turkle (1995) notes that the online world is likely a useful source for both the exploration/development of sexual and gender identities, as well as a place for learning specific romantic and sexual scripts. Research has found that 59% of teens that go online on a daily basis read blogs (PEW, 2007). Suzuki and Calzo (2004) note that many teens rely on websites that offer the opportunity to question and respond to their peers regarding sensitive personal topics as invaluable sources of information, opinion, and even emotional support. Subrahmanyam et al. (2004) found that sex and sexuality were popular topics discussed by adolescents in online chat rooms. These researchers point out that the anonymous nature of the virtual world may be better suited for exploring issues of identity, sexuality, and sexual health than the real world.
The same characteristics that make the Internet an unprecedented source of information relevant to adolescent social and psychological well-being also make it a potentially dangerous one. The lack of expert supervision in many of these information environments means that misinformation has the potential to flow as easily as truth. Those interested in predatory behaviors, taking advantage of others, and/or in misrepresenting themselves to the detriment of message consumers can do so online with little fear of repercussion. Although research has shown the potential for expert monitoring of message boards and blogs to reduce the amount of misinformation distributed by online sources (Subrahmanyam, Smahel, & Greenfield, 2006), there is still plenty of information to be found online that is based wholly on rumor, conjecture, and misinformed opinion. In addition, knowing that a particular source might be monitored by an adult is also likely to negatively impact adolescents’ willingness to communicate candidly regarding sensitive issues. If a large proportion of adolescents are aware of this tendency, they may very well turn to forums that they know are unmonitored for more candid discussion of these issues. As a result adolescents may very well be drawn to less reliable sources for important information on sex and sexuality because they perceive them as more free-flowing, less likely to be censored, and therefore more likely to contain the true beliefs of their peers.
Trying a Sexual Identity on for Size
The Internet also allows individuals unprecedented opportunities for experimentation with their sexual identity. The anonymous nature of much online communication allows individuals of any age to present themselves as anyone or anything they desire. Findings from the Pew Internet and American Life Project (2007) for instance, suggest that 56% of teens with online profiles admitted to posting false information. This has the potential for at least two distinct repercussions. First, it means that adolescents who base their beliefs about the attitudes, behaviors, and even physical characteristics of others in their peer group on such information are likely at least somewhat misinformed. Second, and from a far more pro-social perspective, adolescents and others might be able to use the opportunity to post such (mis)information to anonymously find out how their peers are likely to react to it.
Teens experiencing issues of gender confusion, or other crises related to sexual identity could be well served by online social networking opportunities. Beyond offering such individuals the prospect of confidentially interacting with others who might be experiencing similar crises, the Internet offers an opportunity to interact with others in the actual guise of an alternative sexual identity (Huffaker & Calvert, 2005). This can be as basic as a member of one gender operating or posting to blogs as a member of the opposite gender, to participating in sexual acts as a member of one’s own or opposite sex in synthetic worlds, such as Second Life or Red Light Center.
By offering actual depictions of sexual encounters using avatars, synthetic worlds further offer the opportunity for individuals to learn specific sexual behaviors with which they are unfamiliar in the real world. Gender is really nothing more than a key stroke in virtual environments, while sexual preference is but a willingness to allow one’s avatar to run one particular digital script over another when presented an opportunity to do so with someone else’s avatar. In this sense, synthetic worlds offer a potentially far safer means to experience the sexual experimentation that often to marks the lives of adolescents.
Of course these virtual experiences also have the potential to incite deeper sexual identity crises in some. In exploring new sexual experiences, individuals may find themselves suddenly aroused by, or attracted to behaviors they think or know are dangerous or socially, legally, and/or morally unacceptable. Among these are virtual sexual interactions including depictions of rape, pedophilia, or even something as simple as unprotected sexual contact between strangers. Depending on the individual, such virtual experiences could have serious consequences in the real world. Though likely uncommon, it is not beyond the realm of possibilities that certain individuals could learn that certain problematic sexual behaviors are arousing in the synthetic world and develop a desire to try such behaviors out in the real world.
The opportunity for online sexual interactions may also influence adolescents by impacting their normative beliefs and attitudes about appropriate sexual and romantic behaviors. The virtual sex practiced in online environments could be internalized as normative behaviors by adolescents. The sexual scripts of those partaking in such behaviors could be seriously impacted. This could include anything from the development a sense of appropriate sexual positions during coitus to the proper ways of approaching a potential romantic partner.
Online communication also offers the potential for creating and extending real life relationships. One small study found that 33% percent of a sample of experienced Internet users between the ages of 12 and 22 reported their first sexual experience occurred online (Smahel, 2003). The Internet offers adolescents the opportunity to establish new relationships with people with whom they may have limited or no contact in the real world. Considering the social and physical awkwardness that often marks this stage in the human developmental process, it is possible some adolescents might find interacting in a more confidential environment easier than doing so in a face-to-face context. Most (though not all) research suggests however, that adolescents who have more well-established social contacts in the real world tend to also have more and better social connections in the online world (for a review see Jackson, 2008; Subrahmanyam & Lin, 2007; van den Eijnden et al., 2008).
There is little doubt that the Internet and social networking technology will continue to play an increasingly seminal role in the lives of adolescents and members of all age groups. As noted, data suggest that adolescents continue to access and rely upon the Internet in increasing numbers, and with rising intensity every year (PEW, 2007). The unique nature of the Internet as a means of information dissemination makes it likely to be increasingly utilized by young persons in their sexual identity development, particularly those in the early and most uncertain stages of the process. The combined increasing ubiquity, general anonymity, and interactivity that are hallmarks of Internet communication make it a particularly well suited tool for use in exploring sexual and other dimensions of identity development among members of this age group. It should therefore not be surprising that, as has been discussed, an increasing proportion of adolescents already report turning to various Internet sources for information related to issues of sex and sexuality. In response, researchers should continue to increase their attention towards the role of the Internet in the process of sexual socialization.
Special consideration should be given to those adolescents who might be considered most at risk for developing crises related to their sexual identity. Here we are not simply referring to those individuals who are struggling in coming to terms with their sexual orientation. As discussed, the concept of sexual identity refers to far more than sexual orientation. Specific attention should be given to adolescents who appear to be having a particularly difficult time with any part of the sexual identity development process. The role of the Internet as both a contributor to, and/or a potential solution for such problems must be considered. For example, researchers should continue to compare and contrast the positive and negative repercussions of relying on Internet sources for sexual information and socialization (e.g., unmonitored websites, blogs, and social networking sites) with those of more traditional, non-media sources (e.g., school, parents, real world peer relationships). Particular attention should also focus on how Internet use might interact with certain individual differences in adolescent psychology and personality. Such interactions could potentially result in various levels and types of sexual dysfunction.
It may quickly become apparent that media literacy programs, such as those aimed at improving adolescents’ online information processing skills are needed to help adolescents better utilize the Internet in the process of general socialization in addition to sexual socialization. Considering the amount of information and, perhaps more importantly, misinformation that is available through the Internet from peers, those claiming to be experts, and those specifically interested in doing harm to members of this age group, aiding adolescents in becoming more efficient and efficacious processors of online communication seems likely to help in all aspects of identity development. Programs should be developed that help adolescents better seek out, process, and put into perspective the onslaught of sexually-related information they will continue to encounter on the Internet in coming years. Such programs could take the form of a unit in curricula related to either general sex education or media literacy. Perhaps both would be best.
This chapter considered the potential role of the Internet in adolescent sexual identity construction. It began by underscoring the importance of understanding the complex interrelationships within this process between the rapidly transitioning adolescent body and brain, and the types of social stimuli generally experienced by young persons as they develop a sexual self-identity. It then noted the increasing ubiquity of various Internet communication activities (a particular social stimulus) in the lives of young people. Theoretical perspectives best suited to help researchers understand the processes by which adolescents go about constructing their individual sexual self-identities were then considered. We next examined the specific role Internet communication technologies already do, and are likely to continue to play in the process of sexual socialization. Finally, we considered what the future is likely to hold in terms of adolescents’ use of the Internet as a tool in this process. Researchers and clinicians interested in the issue of the development of sexual identity among adolescents would do well to give greater attention to the increasingly central role the Internet and other social networking technologies can be expected to play in sexual identity development. In doing so they should focus substantial attention on the complex interrelationship between the structure of the biologically transitioning adolescent mind and the nature and impact of the Internet as a source of information and social networking.