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Project description

This interdisciplinary project problematises undergraduate student participation in image-rich and real-time digital spaces (YouTube/Instagram/TikTok).

Primary participants

Principal Investigators:
Dr Rille Raaper, School of Education, 

Dr Mariann Hardey, Business School,

Visiting Fellows:  
Dr Philippa Collin, Western Sydney University 

Professor Robert Hassan, University of Melbourne

Professor Katrin Tiidenberg, Tallinn University

About Risks to Youth and Studenthood in Digital Spaces

While it is widely acknowledged that students as young people inhabit digital spaces, there is a lack of understanding of how social media interacts with their identity development throughout their ‘student lifecycle’, including transitions to/from studenthood and identity-based belonging. Such spatiotemporal focus on identities is essential in a context where digital spaces constantly evolve with new ways to express oneself. 

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This project focuses on the issues that arise due to young people’s participation in image-rich, real-time digital spaces such as YouTube, Instagram, and TikTok. For analytic purposes, we focus on undergraduate students. It is widely known that students inhabit digital spaces. However, there is a limited understanding of the role of social media in forming student identities, especially with how various identity markers (e.g., gender, ethnicity, sexuality) intersect with digital platforms used. Furthermore, from the start of their studies to the end of three years, students go through a number of transitions in their identity formation. This project therefore takes a spatiotemporal approach to identity formation in digital spaces, emphasising transitions in studenthood and youth as well as digital platforms they inhabit. Such emphasis is vital when social media is constantly evolving with new ways to express oneself and where the student population has become younger, resulting in overlapping pressures between studenthood and youth transitions. The WHO has also announced the mental health crisis among students (Harvard Medical School n.d.), making it important to consider the interaction between social media on student wellbeing.

Context and research questions

Over the past decade, there has been a surge of projects on identity development in social media, e.g. ‘This is Me’ (University of Reading, 2012), ‘Why We Post?’ (UCL, 2012-2016) and ‘Ego Media’ (KCL, 2014-2019). These projects have taken ethnographic approaches to explore social media use across diverse age groups, platforms and geographic locations, and they have generally emphasised the positives of digital participation. However, youth studies have provided more critical accounts of young people on social media, focusing on issues such as violence (Alava et al. 2017; Tripathi 2017); activism (Collin 2015; Fullam 2017; Keating & Melis 2017); and belonging and body image (Bates et al. 2020; Marks et al. 2020; Hogue & Mills 2019). Such research has been ground-breaking but disperse. There has been a tendency to homogenise youth (a group with singular experiences) and social media platforms. To expand and contest the field, we propose the following research questions:

  • What are the competing narratives (produced through discourses, visuals) that construct student identities in image-rich digital spaces?
  • How do these narratives differ across student lifecycle (e.g. transitioning in/out of HE), background (e.g. gender, social class, ethnicity) and digital platforms used (e.g. TikTok, YouTube, Instagram)?
  • What are the kinds of online/offline communities that students develop belonging to through social media?
  • What are the wellbeing risks associated with young people’s social media participation?

This project starts with the premise that identities are formed intersubjectively, through relations with others, and in our interaction with the material and virtual world. To fully appreciate the role of digital spaces in forming student identities and wellbeing, it is important to understand the pressures that young people experience in today’s society. The majority of UG students worldwide are young people at a point in their life when they are living independently and away from home for the first time: across the OECD countries, the average age of first-time entrants to HE was 22 years old in 2018 (OECD 2020). In the UK, 57% of the first-time entrants were 20 years old or younger in 2018/19, and only 16% included students older than 25 (HESA 2020). We will investigate what it means to be a young person in a neoliberal society where the shift from collective welfare systems to digital entrepreneurialism has occurred, using our wealth of expertise in Education, Sociology, Business, and Psychology. For example, one is expected to sell their unwanted belongings on eBay, develop a start-up or become an Uber driver rather than rely on state support in times of need. Students are also treated as consumers, purchasing education as any other commodity (Brooks & Abrahams 2018; Raaper 2019). It is thus unsurprising that social media promotes an image of the self as an enterprise. We also argue that the psychological pressures students experience have been amplified by Covid-19, which has raised attention to youth unemployment and mental health disorders (Hellemans et al. 2020; Partington 2020) and created concerns for social media addiction (Tarrant 2021). We will then draw on our expertise from Anthropology and Philosophy to conceptualise identity and space in a digital era and explore the interaction between visuals, symbols and discourse in identity construction. Finally, we rely on Computer Science to emphasise the materiality of digital spaces and develop approaches to study image-rich digital spaces.

Theoretical framework

We propose a novel approach that integrates the following theoretical threads (see Appendix 1):

Societal context: Digital capitalism, commodification and self-actualisation. These ideas place studenthood in a neoliberal society where the shift has taken place from analogue to digital technologies (Hassan 2017, 2020). According to Stiegler (2010, 2019), consumer and digital societies have disrupted psychic and collective individuation processes, affecting intergenerational relationships and the futures available to young people. Social media profiles and how their audiences define them, can either enhance or detract from selfhood. Self-taught mechanisms for managing social media profiles are among the new forms of identity that shape individuals’ performance of their present/future selves. People are increasingly finding themselves in a world where mediated realities trump physical ones (Baudrillard 1998; Hassan 2017). Therefore, it is likely that students internalise such societal shifts to digital with an aim for self-actualisation (Maslow 1962). However, we anticipate that young people’s interactions will not be either/or in terms of self-actualisation but interactions with others will influence how fulfilled an individual is perceived to be (Mead 1934). As a result, the definition of self-actualisation is called into question.

Digital surveillance and wellbeing: Pornographication, panopticon and distress. We draw on Han and Foucault to highlight the darker side of digital presence and its risks to students’ mental health. According to Han (2015a, 2015b, 2017), social media destroys the public sphere by creating a digital panopticon in which ‘inhabitants actively participate in its construction and maintenance by putting themselves on display and baring themselves’ (Han 2015b). According to Foucauldian theory, such panoptic-disciplinary technologies aim to create ‘docile bodies’: bodies that can be easily ‘subjected, used, transformed, and improved,' and thus become skilled at increasing their own self-control (Foucault, 1975, 136). Han (2015a) explains such shifts as part of contemporary society’s pornographication, in which everything, including one’s self, is on sale. This approach will allow us to focus on how students generate the ‘omnipotence of the despotic gaze’ (Han 2015b, 45) over their own being and becoming (particularly relevant when student mental health is on the decline). The research will make a significant contribution by developing practical solutions to address and minimise these potential mental health harms.  

Identity development: Online communities, performance and digital self. We conceptualise social media as virtual spaces of collective knowledge/content production, and as contexts where identities are shaped relationally out of interaction with other users and the platforms themselves (Chen 2016; Braidotti 2013). Digital participatory cultures produce ‘new forms of power, status and control’ (Jenkins et al. 2016, 12) but are also themselves co-produced by the ‘imagined community’ of users (cf. Anderson 1991; Miller 2011). Digital anthropology will allow us to emphasise the visual and social aesthetic in constructing/performing identities. Guided by Goffman’s (1959) performativity and digital interpretations of dramaturgy (Uimonen 2013; Wittkower 2014), we view online performance of selfhood as staged in a digitally mediated social world that both build upon and depart from everyday social practices. By engaging with discursive (language, text, content) and visual elements (temporal organisation, image, camerawork, sound), it is possible to examine recurring narratives and aesthetic structures through which student identities are constructed and performed (Holmes 2017). A performative understanding of identity implies that the self is never in stasis, and that agency is relational as regards embodied persons, discourses, practices and the material world (cf. Butler 1990, 1997; McNay, 1992; Kirtsoglou, 2004). The distributed and relational character of agency as theorised within the tradition of ‘post-humanism’ (Latour 1996; Bennett 2010; Braidotti 2013), views the material world as being imbued with ‘agentic capacities’ (Coole, 2013); that is, as being equally able to become ‘actant’ (Latour 1996). The material world has ‘capacities’, and ‘trajectories’ of its own (Bennet 2010). It produces affective responses (Coole, 2013; Navaro-Yashin, 2009) and fosters mutual interdependencies between humans and digital technologies. Part of our ambition will then be to investigate the ways students forge assemblages with electronic technologies (cf. Braidotti 2013; Haraway 1997; Tiidenberg & Gomez Cruz 2015) and how they interact with other users and politico-economic structures that shape the formation of online communities. 

Methodological approach

We will apply the following research stages and comply with the highest ethical standards set by the ESRC.

Stage 1: Systematic literature review (via Scopus database) on student presence in social media, and theoretical frameworks used in existing studies.

Stage 2: Video and image analysis. We will identify the 30 most followed UK student social media users in platforms such as YouTube, Instagram and TikTok. We are working with ARC to set the parameters (time/scope) for video and image analysis and develop a computer-assisted method for identifying core patterns using research software engineering and computational analysis. The sample of videos/images will include posts from various students (different years and backgrounds.) The analysis will include the systematic mapping of the reach of content, primary language processing, content analysis of social media posts, and sentiment analysis. Guided by digital ethnography (cf. Pink 2015), we analyse online communication emphasising its elliptic and poetic capacities. Methodological cues from the field of visual anthropology (cf. Banks and Moprhy 1997; Pink 2001; Nugent 2008) will be employed to explore hegemonic representations of the self, communicated and perpetuated through pictorial modes.

Stage 3: Follow up face-to-face/online interviews with 15 students from the sample above, including students from various years and backgrounds. Interviews explore the less visible aspects of social media use and issues of self-actualisation, wellbeing and future transitions. Data will be analysed by using CDA.

Scholarly outcomes: a) rigorous theoretical-methodological framework on students in digital spaces; b) ESRC/Leverhulme standard research grant application; c) a minimum of 2 journal articles (on framework, findings); d) academic symposium and conference presentations.

Developmental and policy outcomes: a) project website to encourage discussion throughout the project; b) student-focused seminar organised in collaboration with Durham Students’ Union; c) policy/practice recommendations on student wellbeing shared via the project website, Durham partners.


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