Who Am I? Youth Identity Online

Curated by Erin Wilkey Oh
May 10, 2012

This collection of resources gives us an opportunity to think about what it means for youth to explore and express identity online.

Online, there is always an audience that will listen. There is always a chance to contribute to the conversation. Online, young people can find supportive communities. They can connect to peers with similar interests or life experiences. They can try on different identities in low-risk spaces. They can be themselves without fear of mocking or humiliation. Of course, we know that not all online spaces are free of risk. There are bullies. There are humiliations. People can witness our mistakes. Not everyone we encounter wants the best for us. But supportive online spaces do exist for young people. And even in less supportive spaces, careful participation can have its rewards. With this collection, I invite you to consider student identity exploration in terms of your own work with youth. How can we, as educators, shape digital classroom environments and online student spaces to support healthy identity expression and exploration for our students? Additionally, how can we prepare students for the risks of growing up online?

The first resource in this collection, Growing Up Online, introduces some of the big conversations and debates about how youth negotiate their identities online. Though broadcast in 2008, the PBS Frontline Documentary featured in this resource still resonates among parents and teachers today. Many adults are fearful about what young people are doing online. School districts continue to filter Internet access to protect kids and assuage parents’ fears. Much of what you see in this documentary will likely be familiar territory. It serves as an important reminder of how these conversations started and what has shaped local and national policies concerning youth online.

Several resources in this collection provide examples of how marginalized groups can find voice and identity online. The second resource introduces Mary L. Gray, a researcher from Indiana University, whose ethnographic studies of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and questioning (LGBTQ) youth in the rural U.S. reveal surprising connections between access to technology and sexual identity development. In Our Voices, Our Choices, English language learners in Austin, Texas grapple with their identities as new immigrants while engaging in a school-based social network. The fourth resource in this collection features a video created by Lakota Sioux high school students, who challenge negative media portrayals of Native American communities with their own vision of themselves.

The resources in this collection also highlight how educators can support young people in both in-school and out-of-school online settings. The Lakota students created their video at school with the help of a teacher. The students in Austin practiced their English skills on a real audience in a teacher-created safe space. In my resource about the work of Mary Gray, we learn how a librarian was able to give LGBTQ youth access to information and community by simply rearranging the furniture in the library. Growing Up Online reminds us how critical it is to incorporate digital citizenship and online safety skills into our teaching across the content areas. And in the final resource in this collection, Authentic Conversations on Youth Voices, Paul Allison gives us a glimpse into the school-based social network, Youth Voices. We see how youth inquiry and peer-driven conversations can enhance and encourage in-school intellectual pursuits. 

I hope you find this collection of resources thought-provoking. I consider this a starting point for conversations and hope to hear your thoughts in the comments and discussions. 

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