Developmental Tasks Of Adolescence:
Emerging Identity And Individuation/Autonomy
The hallmark developmental task of adolescence is to construct a coherent self-identity and the universality of this struggle is central to adolescent culture. During this period of transition, adolescents face the challenge of individuation/autonomy and identity formation as they actively seek support from sources other than their parents and adult guardians. Adolescent engagement in self-identity exploration and displays of increased self-reliance are often public (e.g., in the form of dress, preferred music, or new personal freedoms), further contributing to a distinct adolescent culture.
Adolescents may further their identity formation through involvement in digital media which allows for freedom of self-expression and identity exploration via, for example, blogs and social networking. The Internet, in general, may provide a vehicle through which adolescents can readily access information pertinent to their physical and psychological well-being as they transition toward adulthood.
This more private solicitation of health information may directly relate to adolescents’ desires to further their understanding of the behavioral and emotional changes they experience within themselves and observe among their peers. Confusion in the identity exploration process (i.e., role confusion; feelings of insecurity about the self or how one fits into society; uncertainty about one’s sense of life direction) has been associated with anxiety, depression, and poor self-esteem. Additionally, a lack of engagement in the identity exploration process and subsequent difficulty forming a cohesive self-identity also has been shown to be associated with depression and poor self-esteem. Furthermore, some health risk behaviors (e.g., smoking, alcohol use, sexual promiscuity, self-harm) may be secondary to the individuation process, with adolescents engaging in “trending” behaviors, behaviors considered “cool” or adult-like, in an attempt to appear interesting or sophisticated.
According to identity theory, well-adjusted adolescents thoughtfully consider and explore a range of identity options before committing to a coherent self-identity. This identity results from the process of integrating life experiences into an internalized, evolving narrative that provides meaning and purpose to one’s life. In light of the process by which adolescents engage in identity formation via engagement with media, researchers have used Piaget’s stages as a framework for considering developmental differences in children’s comprehension, reactions, and responses to media content. Adolescents’ cognitive skills reflect increasing levels of abstraction, formal logic, and hypothetical reasoning. However, because development is often more uneven and domain-specific than a stage approach suggests, more recent theories of information processing have focused instead on the schemas, strategies, and rules that children acquire with maturation. Development, according to information processing models, consists of both qualitative and quantitative changes in cognitive skills such as selective attention, encoding, and information retrieval. Findings consistently show that there are marked differences in cognitive processing between early childhood (roughly 2-7 years of age) and late childhood (8-12 years of age), and between late childhood and adolescence (13-17 years).
Adolescents also show enhanced metacognition. Thus, they are better able to monitor and regulate their own thought processes than their middle childhood counterparts. Similarly, compared to children under age 12, one might expect that adolescents would be more conscious of their responses to media content, of what strategies they are using to search for media content, and of how much cognitive effort is needed to engage in different media-related activities necessary to utilize and establish interpersonal support systems. There is relatively little information about developmental differences in understanding the Internet’s technical and social complexities. One’s inability to evaluate and analyze messages presented via the Internet (and other forms of media) may impact the interpretation of content and, subsequently, result in serious social, personal, and health consequences.