The researchers have claimed that the youngsters are using their virtual self to explore their emerging identities. The study, based on small focus groups with a total of 11 women and 12 men, all UCLA students who use MySpace frequently, also revealed that parents often understand very little about this phenomenon. "People can use these sites to explore who they are by posting particular images, pictures or text. You can manifest your ideal self," said UCLA psychology graduate student Adriana Manago, a researcher with the Children's Digital Media Center, Los Angeles (CDMCLA), and lead author of a study.
Manago said that such websites allow the youngsters to manifest who they want to be and then try to grow into that.
Manago added: "We're always engaging in self-presentation; we're always trying to put our best foot forward. Social networking sites take this to a whole new level. You can change what you look like, you can Photoshop your face, you can select only the pictures that show you in a perfect lighting. These websites intensify the ability to present yourself in a positive light and explore different aspects of your personality and how you present yourself.
"You can try on different things, possible identities, and explore in a way that is common for emerging adulthood. It becomes psychologically real. People put up something that they would like to become - not completely different from who they are but maybe a little different - and the more it gets reflected off of others, the more it may be integrated into their sense of self as they share words and photos with so many people."
"People are living life online. Social networking sites are a tool for self-development," said Manago's co-author Patricia Greenfield.
The websites have users opening free accounts communicating with other tens of millions users on Facebook and MySpace. The website allow the users to select "friends" and share photos, videos and information about themselves - such as whether they are currently in a relationship - with these friends.
A large number of students have 1,000 or more friends on Facebook or MySpace. The researchers said that the identity, romantic relations and sexuality all get played out on these social networking sites.
Greenfield said: "All of these things are what teenagers always do, but the social networking sites give them much more power to do it in a more extreme way. In the arena of identity formation, this makes people more individualistic and more narcissistic; people sculpt themselves with their profiles. In the arena of peer relations, I worry that the meaning of 'friends' has been so altered that real friends are not going to be recognized as such. How many of your 1,000 'friends' do you see in person? How many are just distant acquaintances? How many have you never met?"
"Instead of connecting with friends with whom you have close ties for the sake of the exchange itself, people interact with their 'friends' as a performance, as if on a stage before an audience of people on the network," said Manago.
"These social networking sites have a virtual audience, and people perform in front of their audience. You're a little detached from them. It's an opportunity to try different things out and see what kind of comments you get," said Michael Graham, a former UCLA undergraduate psychology student who worked on this study with Greenfield and Manago for his honor's thesis.
He added: "Sometimes people put forth things they want to become, and sometimes people put forth things that they're not sure about how other people will respond. They feel comfortable doing that. If they put something forward that gets rave reviews from people, it can alter the way they view their own identity. Through this experimentation, people can get surprised by how the molding goes."
But one question that plagues many is that such exploration of identity through these websites will turn out to be psychologically healthy or not.
"I hate to be an older person decrying the relationships that young people form and their communication tools, but I do wonder about them. Having 1,000 friends seems to be like collecting accessories," said Kaveri Subrahmanyam, associate director of the CDMCLA.
The researchers also delved into the consequences of having 1,000 friends on the relationships with one's true friends.
"Relationships now may be more fleeting and more distant. People are relating to others trying to promote themselves and seeing how you compare with them. We found a lot of social comparisons, and people are comparing themselves against these idealized self-presentations," said Manago.
She added: "Women feel pressure to look beautiful and sexy, yet innocent, which can hurt their self-esteem. Now you are part of the media; your MySpace profile page is coming up next to Victoria's Secret models. It can be discouraging to feel like you cannot live up to the flawless images you see."
"You're relating to people you don't really have a relationship with. People have a lot of diffuse, weak ties that are used for informational purposes; it's not friendship. You may never see them. For a large number of people, these are relationships with strangers. When you have this many people in your network, it becomes a performance for an audience. You are promoting yourself. The line between the commercial and the self is blurring," said Greenfield.
Greenfield added: "The personal becomes public, which devalues close relationships when you display so much for everyone to see."
"Who we are is reflected by the people we associate with. If I can show that all these people like me, it may promote the idea that I am popular or that I associate with certain desirable cliques," said Manago.
"Just at the age where peers are so important, that's where social networking - which is all about peers - is very attractive. Just at the age where you're exploring identity and developing an identity, that's where this powerful tool for exploring identity is very appealing. These sites are perfectly suited for the expanded identity exploration characteristic of emerging adults," said Greenfield.
The study appears in a special issue of the Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology.