A New Life Task for the 21st Century College Student

Ipad FaceDeveloping an online presence is becoming a new life task for 21st Century college students. It remains unclear, however, whether or not students are aware of both the positive and negative consequences that their postings on social media may have. Students post many positive depictions of their college experience and the fun they have with their friends. This can shed light into a person’s character, morals, interests and values.

Positive social media use can help students show their value to admission counselors and potential employers. However, it is often the negative or “risky” behavior that students articulate across social media that has college administrators, potential employers and admission counselors worried. When an administrator, or admission counselor perceives a seemingly innocent post or picture negatively, it can result in the student not receiving a scholarship, internship or admission to an institution.

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). A question that challenges many Student Affairs professionals lies within an administrator’s philosophy surrounding student engagement.

  • How and in what ways should we interact with students within online realm?
  • Is it our job as administrators and educators to monitor student behavior online?
    • If not, whose is it?
  • Furthermore, as new research and articles define and further develop the concept of Digital Identity, a question remains: Is there a way to measure the impact of a student’s Digital Identity?
  • Lastly, a question of congruency and empowerment may be challenging many professionals: How can educators empower students to become congruent, more aware and safe while networking with peers and professionals as they experiment with new websites and applications?

Such questions are at the root of an important discussion that is taking place amongst student affairs professionals across the globe pertaining to a  need to educate college students pertaining to the impact of their digital identity. Students and professionals alike must understand that identity development is intertwined with online profiles and a person’s self-presenting identity. Students must be urged to strive for congruency, and, as a result, student affairs professionals must identify and assess best practices surrounding meeting students where they are at on the Internet.


Defining Digital Identity

Facer and Selwyn (2010) urge educators to focus their attention and research efforts to social media networking sites, as they provide a venue for identity construction. Cronin (2012) stresses that a digital identity is a persona that one promotes digitally across social networks and communities. Students leave a digital footprint behind every time they interact with others online. It consists of the information that they create and choose to put out onto the World Wide Web. Digital identities are created via social media networking sites and are proving to be more than just a marketing tool for big business; they relentlessly contribute to a students’ personal and professional online brand and identity (Couros, 2012).

Theories surrounding student development must become innovative with new generational shifts. Identity construction should be thought about differently in the 21st Century than traditional development theories may have previously suggested. Social media is seductive, addictive, risky and is rapidly changing the traditional landscape of the college experience and the way student affairs professionals conduct their work as “gatekeepers of the student experience” (Dalton and Crosby, 2013, p. 2). Social media will continue to impact student life, becoming the “most important gateway for student experiences in college” (p. 2).

UnboundID-Digital-IdentityAs gatekeepers, student affairs professionals, and higher education administrators, provide access to opportunities, resources and have the ability to purposefully challenge students in an effort to help them grow into globally engaged citizens that will facilitate positive social change. Digital identity development is a result of the social changes that have occurred within the Millennial generation and across college campuses nationwide. This marks Digital Identity as a new life task of the 21st Century college student. It is now the role of educators to improve their competencies in technology, social media and generational shifts in order to continue to innovate best practices that will help students understand the impacts of their digital identity and its relationship to their development.


Couros, G. (2012). Personal and professional vs. public and private. In The Principal of Change. Retrieved from http://georgecouros.ca/blog/archives/3432

Cronin, C. (2012). Social Networking with our Students: Digital Identity, Privacy & Authenticity. Retrieved from    http://www.slideshare.net/cicronin/cesi12-digital-identity-privacy-authenticity

Facer, K., & Selwyn, N. (2010). Social Networking: Key Messages from the Research. In R. Sharpe, H. Beetham, & S. de Freitas (Eds.), Rethinking learning for a digital age: How learners are shaping their own experiences (pp. 31-42). New York, NY: Routledge.

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

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