Risks to Youth and Studenthood in Digital Spaces: Commodification, Transitions and Digital Identities

May 17, 2022 | Projects, Transformations (Issue 6)

Dr Rille Raaper (Education) and Dr Mariann Hardey (Business School)

This project emerged from a number of exciting digital coffee (very apt) conversations where we discussed issues related to digital spaces and how they are used and navigated by students as young people. We both were surprised how little we knew about students’ use of social media platforms. We also realised that Mariann’s interest and expertise in digital platforms and participation, and Rille’s work on youth and studenthood were an ideal match to put together a timely and ambitious project. Over time, we involved further Durham academics from Sociology (Prof Vikki Boliver), Anthropology (Dr Elisabeth Kirtsoglou), Computer Science (Prof Alexandra I. Cristea), Philosophy (Dr Clare Mac Cumhaill), and Psychology (Dr Thuy-vy T. Nguyen) to give the project a real interdisciplinary lens.

The research team’s incredible synergy directed us towards wanting to particularly understand undergraduate student participation in image-rich and real-time digital spaces such as YouTube, Instagram and TikTok. We all know that students as young people inhabit digital spaces, but what is less clear is how such social media platforms shape their identity development throughout their so-called ‘student lifecycle’ which would involve transitions to/from studenthood and identity-based belonging. From the start of their studies to the end of three years, students go through various transitions in their identity formation, and it is likely that their engagement with social media platforms differs depending on the transitions they are going through, e.g. from searching for a community to increasing one’s employability. Similarly, 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. We feel that an emphasis on space, time, and identities is critical in a world where digital spaces are always evolving with new and more visible methods to express oneself. While we are now laying the groundwork for this initiative, which will begin in Epiphany 2023, there are a few lessons to be learned.

As we have fine-tuned our approach to theory in this project, we have started to critique the rather traditional ideas of digital nativism that present contemporary youth as holding an authoritative role in digital technologies. Instead, we draw on several contemporary theorists from French, German and American sociological-philosophical tradition, e.g. Bernard Stiegler, Byung-Chul Han and Judith Butler, and explore their relationship with earlier works of Baudrillard, Goffman, Mead and Foucault. This approach will let us question the issues of self-actualisation and surveillance in the context of cultural capitalism at the borders of burnout and depression. We draw on anthropological and philosophical works about space, performance, and visual representation. This project, it is fair to say, is the final catalyst for intriguing theory work that will contribute to our scholarly understandings of adolescent participation in digital environments.

We are also prioritising methodological creativity with an idea to integrate computer-assisted video/image analysis with anthropological analysis of visuals and sociological approaches to discourse. This is all with an idea to explore digital participation and identity construction as they relate to sociomaterialist symbols and verbal and body language. Our project will include a variety of stages, including a systematic literature review to better understand the scope and contributions of existing research in the field. We also conduct video and image analysis of a selection of UK student influencers, followed by qualitative interviews to deepen our insight into the lived experiences of these students.

Our overall ambition is to produce an innovative as well as creative theoretical-methodological framework that offers a better understanding of how students as young people engage with image-rich digital social media platforms and the effects it can have on their experiences of studenthood and identity development.

Finally, we are delighted to welcome and host three esteemed IAS Fellows as part of our project: Prof Katrin Tiidenberg (Tallinn University), Dr Philippa Collin (Western Sydney University) and Prof Robert Hassan (University of Melbourne). Their areas of expertise complement one another, ranging from youth engagement with digital platforms, to digital and visual data analysis methods and philosophical problematisations of digital worlds and altered time/space experiences.

We are very much looking forward to working with our wonderful Co-Is across Durham University and welcoming the three IAS Fellows to join our project!



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