Although not the specific focus of my research, it nevertheless occurred to me that some of the behaviors I noticed students exhibiting in my research followed well known and well established developmental patterns. As a thought experiment, I tried to map some of these behaviors to the classic developmental theories of Marcia Baxter Magolda and Robert Kegan. The above graphic was the result of this experiment. It is VERY much in draft form and subject to my evolving understanding, but I wanted to put it out into cyberspace for feedback and thoughts about what I developed.
It was very clear from my interviews with traditionally aged college students that their social media use followed a transition from externally motivated behavior to internally motivated behavior. Students evolved from being owned by social media to owning it. This shouldn’t be much of a surprise as this is a natural developmental phenomenon, but the way it is instantiated online makes it somewhat novel and unique.
The external factors that seem to rule college student behavior online are motivated by a desire to portray an amplified life. A life that appears to be constantly “exciting,” “fun,” and “engaging.” Success in crafting this image is quantified through Likes and comments. Likes are the currency of social media validation. The more Likes one gets, the more validation one receives.
Validation through Likes is a trap for college students. It plays into a vicious cycle where social sharing becomes less about connecting with others and more about portraying oneself in a specific way. Receive a lot of Likes, and that means the next posting needs to achieve this same number of Likes or more. Compare your number of Likes to those of others, and try to achieve more than they have. Posting behaviors become a never-ending self-perpetuating cycle of posting-quantifying-comparing, posting-quantifying-comparing. It becomes a game in which one constantly attempts to beat their own “high score” and those of others. A behavior that can be incredibly draining, stressful, and depressing for the college student mind.
Students that have broken out of this cycle are the ones who emerge with a new found self-confidence. They reorient their use of social media to meet their own goals. Validation becomes less important. Represented by the stages depicted at the right of this diagram, students make their own choices about social media and how it fits into their lives. They also realize it is a constant renegotiation process. So although they may again fall prey to the cycle noted above, they are more easily able to self-navigate out of it. Social media use is on their terms.
So those are my thoughts… What do you think? How might you revise or refine this diagram? Are these theories even useful for understanding social media use or do we need something else?