Digital Identity


Social networking sites provide students with limitless virtual space where they become the architects of their own Digital Identity. Such an identity manifests the moment someone inputs information about themselves or others online. College student digital identity development should be looked at as an extension of a students’ in-person identity, however, the impact of having a poorly developed digital identity can be severe. Due to this shift in student development, there is now an increasing need for the creation of a college student digital identity development model to provide educators with a lens for assessing the impacts, benefits and consequences of a student’s virtual presence.

College students frequently build community in both virtual and real-life worlds. Whether they are taking a web-hybrid course or posting photos on the popular photo sharing application, Instagram, they are consuming and producing information, and living lives “regulated by technology” (Martinez Aleman & Wartman, 2011, p. 515). Social networking sites provide college students with a virtual place to create a profile, build their identity and a personal network that can connect them to countless people across the globe (Lenhart & Madden, 2007). As students cultivate their reputation on the Internet, the inherent ability to share information may seem to have many benefits, but the negative consequences are proving to be endemic to student development (Kruger, 2013; O’Shea, 2013). “As Facebook participation has become virtually universal among college students, colleges and universities are presented with the dilemma of responding to the photos or other content posted by their students. Photos of illegal drinking, vandalism, and person-to-person violence increasingly appear on students’ social networking sites” (Kruger, 2009, p. 589) and student affairs professionals must find a way to make sense of it all.

With the Internet comes unlimited access to information that can cause a sometimes liberating, and other times, a constraining feeling that is bursting with legal implications that address free speech, anonymity and accountability. Gossiping and cyberbullying through social media outlets causes rumors to spread and can affect college students in a myriad of ways. Therefore, student affairs professionals must assist the students they serve and seek to help evolve the way their emotions are managed online. Every click of a mouse provides a permanent update to one’s Digital Dossier, the digitized files created and archived about oneself online. As professionals who work with college students, we should seek to expand their learning surrounding the facts that privacy does not exist online and their reputation is now becoming based on their digital identity (Solove, 2007).

What is already known about traditional aged-college students is that they spend a lot of time online, especially since they were “the first generation to grow up with the Internet and were the first to join social networking sites such as MySpace and Facebook” (Twenge, 2013, p. 15). Students are consumers of the Internet, and are posting comments in Facebook groups, liking pages, “favoriting” tweets, posting selfies on Instagram, and continuously posting public information onto the World Wide Web. In fact, every minute of the day: 100,000 tweets are sent; 684,478 pieces of content are shared on Facebook; 2 million search queries are made on google; 48 hours of video are uploaded to YouTube; 47,000 apps are downloaded from the App Store; 3,600 photos are shared on Instagram; 571 websites are created and $272,000 is spent by consumers online (Pring, 2012).

Do students understand that every bit of information shared online is tracked, traced and archived (Solove, 2007)? Just one ‘like’ or comment posted in cyberspace can cause a ripple effect that can be easily accessed far into the future. It is what students do online that translates into real-life and can pose life-altering consequences both during and after college.

Assisting students in developing their online presence while in college may seem like a positive experience to us as educators, but for many college students, there is much at risk. Thus, the central question remains, are they aware of the risks? Kevin Kruger (2009) asserts that there is a “conflict between individual rights, privacy and claims of free speech and the responsibility of colleges and universities to monitor the behavior of their students” (p. 589).

  • How should student affairs professionals change the way they interact with students to make them aware of the positive benefits and increasing risks of the World Wide Web?
  • Is it our job to monitor student behavior online?
  • Is there a way to measure the impact of a student’s “digital identity”?
  • How can educators empower students to become congruent, aware and safe while networking with peers and professionals as they experiment with new social media platforms and applications?

College students need to be educated on the impact of their digital identity, and I believe that it is now the job of 21st Century student affairs professionals to find the best practices surrounding meeting students where they are on the Internet.

Questions for Reflection:

  • What are you doing within your department, or across your institution to help students develop their digital identity?
  • Conversely, what are you doing to help them understand the benefits, risks and return on investment?
  • How will this help, or hinder, them in applying to jobs, whether on-campus or post-graduation?

View the published article in the New England ACPA Newsletter, here:


Kruger, K. (2009). Technology. In The handbook of student affairs administration (3rd ed., pp. 589-590). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Kruger, K. (2013, February). The new normal: Social networking and student affairs. Journal of College & Character14(1). doi:10.1515/jcc-2013-0005

Lenhart, A., & Madden, M. (2007, January 7). Social networking websites and teens: An overview. Pew Internet and American Life Project.

Martinez Aleman, A. M., and Wartman, K. L. (2011). Student technology use and student affairs practice. In Student Services: A handbook for the profession (5th ed., pp. 515-531). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

O’Shea, J. (2013, February). The role of social media in creating a 21st century educational community: An interview with Joseph Mazer. Journal of College & Character14(1).   doi:10.1515/jcc-2013-0006

Pring, S. (2012, September 15). 216 Social media and internet statistics. In The Social Skinny. Retrieved from september-2012/

Solove, D. (2007). The future of reputation: Gossip, rumor and privacy on the internet. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Twenge, J. M. (2013, February). Does online social media lead to social connection or social disconnection? Journal of College & Character14(1). doi:10.1515/jcc-2013-0003


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