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Today, online communication is an important arena that con-
stitutes everyday life for young people (The Internet
Foundation in Sweden, 2017; Pew Research Center, 2017;
Swedish Media Council, 2017). Most young people all over
the world can make their voices heard through texts or pho-
tos, and in this way, they become agents in their own online
world. They construct multimodal texts, and they experiment
with new ways of constructing, manifesting, and communi-
cating their identities, while enhancing their understanding
of what digital literacy really means. From this perspective,
online communication can be considered as more equal than
offline communication. Regardless of background, young
people can come together around common interests (boyd &
Ellison, 2008; Gee, 2005; Ito et al., 2009; Jenkins, 2006;
Vigmo & Lantz–Andersson, 2013).
In time of increasing diversity, research on young people’s
inclusion and exclusion processes in their everyday life is
highly relevant. For many boys and girls, adolescence is a
time for creating and confirming social alliances. A funda-
mental endeavor in these processes is to belong to a commu-
nity (both online and offline) and feel a sense of belonging to
this community. The concept belonging deals with meeting
other people and decide if they stand inside or outside the
imaginary boundary line of the community, that is, whether
they are regarded as “us” or “them” (Yuval-Davis, 2006).
Thus, belonging also signifies political aspect, for it points to
norms, values, restrictions, and regulations (Lähdesmäki
et al., 2016). Trudeau (2006) stresses that if we want to under-
stand the social control of space we have to understand how
belonging operates. In all practices, both offline and online
there are inclusive and exclusive processes that deal with
struggles about power, popularity, and status. Social commu-
nities do not solely satisfy the human endeavor to belong and
become a part of a community; they develop social identities,
too. It can also be verbalized that the process of belonging
also concerns how social locations and the constructions of
identity are assessed and valued by the self and others in dif-
ferent ways—if it is seen as good or bad and this relates to
attitudes and ideologies. Different discourses construct the
identity more or less inclusive (Yuval-Davis, 2006). Related
to this study, the interest can be articulated as how social cat-
egories are embedded in power relations and how these work
with or against each other in an online context.
There are some differences between online and offline
communication, which have to be conceptualized. Online,
the interactions mostly take place with a mediated face and
often the communication is asynchronous. For performing an
1Linnaeus University, Kalmar, Sweden
Liselotte Eek-Karlsson, Institution of Didactics and Teachers Practice,
Linnaeus University, Pedalstråket 11, Kalmar 391 82, Sweden.
The Importance of Belonging: A Study
About Positioning Processes in Youths’
The aim of this study is to contribute with knowledge of young peoples’ communication in social media. A total of 32 boys
and girls aged 14 to 15 years old, from two schools in Sweden, participated in this study. A hermeneutic interpretation
process formed the basis of the analysis process. The data were thematized based on patterns found throughout the material.
Theoretical perspectives concerning normalization processes related to the use of language were connected to the data to
deepen the understanding of themes and patterns. The result shows that there is an ongoing negotiation with reciprocal
processes in which both boys and girls have lots of reference points to consider, when they interact online. There are social
norms and rules related to the online arena itself, as well as normative expectations connected to gender orders. The gender
category is intertwined with sexuality and group hierarchies, which give the youth different power positions to act online.
young people, social media, positioning processes, normality, intersectionality
2 SAGE Open
online identity, writing and/or publishing photos become
essential (Sundén, 2003; Thomas, 2007). Visibility, duration,
proliferation, and the possibility to be anonymous are other
aspects specific for online interactions (boyd, 2008; Shariff,
2008). Because of the online characteristic, lots of examples
for being a girl or a boy become visible. Through the youths’
interactions the online practice is developed, but at the same
time it also creates meaning. The informal learning develops
deals with values in human communication and how these
values are put into action in their interactions. Some posi-
tions are more powerful and placed in the center of the com-
munity, while others are marginalized with less power. By
these processes, both normality and deviation are constructed
(Kumashiro, 2002). To be included in the peer group, an
awareness of the online characteristics, as well as of different
social norms, is important. This article aims to contribute
with knowledge of youths’ communication in social media
by focusing on positioning processes in their discussions
about online interactions. The following research question is
In what ways are boys’ and girls’ online acting spaces
affected by their position in the peer group?
As mentioned above, this study focuses on positioning pro-
cesses emphasized in boys’ and girls’ discussions about their
online interactions. Through language, they interpret the
world both offline and online. Chouliaraki and Fairclough
(1999) stress that depending on how language is used, differ-
ent discourses are developed in the social practice. By the
young people’s acts online, the construction of what it means
to be a “normal” young boy or a girl become visible.
Normalization processes affect the naturalization of some
identities and estranging of others, for example, on the basis
of gender, sexual orientation, or disability. Kumashiro (2002)
means that otherness and deviation often are known and
maintained in contrast to the norm (Kumashiro, 2002). In
this study, normality is seen as a negotiated contextual pro-
cess, that is, the construction of normality depends on the
subjects involved in the context in which the negotiation
takes place. The constitution of social identities, social rela-
tionships and moral opinions, and so on are a result of these
negotiations that may lead to both inequality and social strat-
ification (Foucault, 1972; Kumashiro, 2002). Normalization
processes result by extension in a common sense, which
gives a feeling of comfort. Commonsensical ideas help us to
“make sense of and feel at ease with things that get repeated
in our everyday lives” (Kumashiro, 2004, p. xxxv). Related
to this study, common sense helps the youths to experience
what it means to communicate with friends in social media to
become included in the peer group.
This study primarily focuses on highlighting how boys
and girls identify and negotiate their positions in the peer
group. This study has an intersectional point of departure to
take a step from looking at power relations as dichotomous
and binary, where groups appear as antagonistic toward each
other. Crenshaw (1995) first used the concept when she stud-
ied violations against women of color. She found that dis-
crimination follows a pattern of intersecting categories, in
this case racialized ethnicity, social class, and gender. Kofoed
(2008) states that the concept of intersectionality “is an
endeavour to conceptualize the blending of categories and
indicates how the effects of categories cannot be understood
separately / . . . / often it will be a matter of the mingling of
the constituent effects of the categories in question” (p. 417).
The youth in this study are not categorized as exclusively
boys or girls. The gender category is intertwined with other
categories that affect their position in the peer group and the
power to act, both offline and online.
Research Methodology and Data
Primary data was collected through pair interviews con-
ducted in two classes in two different schools in a medium-
sized city in Sweden. The purpose was not to conduct a
comparative analysis; instead, the focus was to get a broad
empirical material. In order not to influence the choice of
the participants, the schools were randomly selected
(Bryman, 2016). Initially, the school principals were con-
tacted to give permission to conduct the investigation. The
principal and responsible teachers at each school selected
the participating classes. The reason for choosing the two
classes was their overall interest in discussing, for them,
important questions. Initially, the researcher visited each
class to give information about the investigation. Before
the interviews, the researcher participated approximately
40 hr in each class to get to know the youths as individuals,
but also to get an insight in different group processes.
Finally, four boys and eight girls from Grade 8 (15 years
old) participated (of 23) and in the other class, nine boys
and 11 girls from Grade 7 participated (of 24) in the inves-
tigation. A list of questions and topics were constructed
that had to be covered during the interviews, but the inter-
views can be seen as conversations with the endeavor to let
the youths, as freely as possible, describe the experiences
of their everyday life in social media. The youths them-
selves demarcated the phenomenon. When needed, the
researcher asked question to deepen the understanding. All
the interviews were recorded, transcribed, and anonymized
by the researcher. In total, the material consists of 12 hr
and 38 min recordings. Concerning ethical considerations,
both parents and youths received information about the
research project before it started. Participating youths
obtained permission to participate from their parents. They
were informed about confidentiality and anonymity, that
is, neither city, school, nor participants would be revealed.
All the participants got fictive names. They were also
informed about the possibility to end their participation
whenever they wanted during the interviews (All European
A hermeneutic interpretation process formed the basis
for the analysis. It can also be regarded as a thematic analy-
sis, which is a method used to identify, analyze, and report
patterns within data (Braun & Clarke, 2006). The analysis
began with several readings of the transcriptions to get an
overall understanding and to look for different positioning
processes. Thereafter, the data were thematized based on
patterns found in the material. The analysis involved a
moving back and forward between the entire material, the
coded patterns, and the analysis that was produced. This
phase can be seen as a deconstruction; the thematic analysis
was driven by the research question, that is, all quotations
concerning interactions between peers were put together.
Although the project was guided by the overall research
question, it was also refined as the project progressed. To
get new insights of the different themes, theories were con-
nected to the data. Åsvoll (2013) states that “the theory or
the theoretical perspectives can be applied as an explicit
and directive tool in the selection of data and interpreta-
tions” (p. 290). The theoretical framework helped to find
qualities in the themes and patterns that were found and
eventually a new and deepened understanding of youths’
online positioning processes and how discourses operate in
a social practice was developed. On one hand, the purpose
was to learn from the youths, the way they experience their
online interactions, the meanings they put on it, and how
they interpret what they experience. On the other hand, by
using theories a new and deeper understanding was devel-
oped. A central point in qualitative studies deals with gen-
eralization. The concept “internal validity” highlights the
relation between theory and empirical data (Bryman, 2016).
To connect the empirical data to a theoretical framework to
give meaning to the content is of high relevance in the anal-
ysis process. In this way, the specific context in this study
may be understood at a more principle level and conse-
quently, the result may be valid outside the specific context
by means of the theoretical framework.
The text below are thematized, based on conditions that
affect the online acting space.
The Importance of Acting Normally Correct
The online arena works as a leisure center for most of the
youths in this study. They want to be informed about what is
happening in the peer group and therefore it is of great
importance to join the same social media as the peers. The
number of online friends differs between the youths; some
have 50 to 60, while others have 500. Three boys did not use
social media at all. Nevertheless, most of the youths describe
a lot of advantages of online interactions. But, there are also
social norms and rules connected to the online arena, irre-
spective who you are, that are important to be aware of in
order not to be insulted in different ways. Normative expec-
tations, connected to different social categories in the peer
group, also affect the online acting space. Important aspects
for being included in the community are both to follow the
social norms and to submit to the social control (Yuval-
Davis, 2006). The control system is effective online, because
of the visibility and proliferation possibilities.
General Norms and Rules Online
A main reason for being online is to get attention from
friends, especially close friends. Fredrik (Grade 8) explains
that “everyone wants attention and to be ‘liked’ by everyone
and everything . . . otherwise programs like Big Brother
wouldn’t work.” But it has to be positive attention, that is,
attention that preserves and consolidates a good reputation.
Carl (Grade 7) is completely aware of what it is all about. He
states that “social media is mostly about the outside . . . your
outward face in society, not much about the inside at all . . .
about making a good image.” The “like”-button is central in
the interactions. It is an easy way to affirm each other. It feels
good to get “likes” and if someone has been mean you can
always look at your “likes.” Ebba (Grade 7) says for exam-
ple: “if someone has said something stupid to you, in this
way you can always improve your self-confidence.” When
you get positive attention, it works as a receipt that you are
acting in the right way. Online, there are many possibilities
to test and challenge normative boundaries, both consciously
and unconsciously. Because of the visibility online, there is
often an immediate response. There is a balancing act
between getting positive attention and avoiding different
kinds of exclusive processes. Elin and Johanna (Grade 7)
give an example:
Johanna: A girl is having a hard time. She has hurt herself
Elin: She puts out a bunch of photos . . . her mother is sick
. . . her grandfather is sick . . . she is sick. People react
to that . . . I feel sorry she wants attention. I think peo-
ple think so. They write that you are fat because she
takes pills. You are so fat, so die, Sabina. / . . . / It seems
like she wants to get those comments, that people
should feel sorry for her. It’s too bad for her . . . that’s
not it. It was just . . . it was too much.
The girl described in the excerpt breaches a social norm that
deals with the relation between private and personal content.
Being too private and vulnerable is not accepted online, at
least not in public. Another social norm deals with honesty. It
is important to present oneself in the same way online as
offline, for example not publishing “strange” photos of
4 SAGE Open
oneself. Jessica (Grade 7) explains that “it is as if someone
would see me in reality . . . this is the kind of photos we
In the text above, examples of general online rules are
given, independent of gender or position in the peer group.
But, there are also norms connected to different social cate-
gories or positionings that affect the online acting space. The
first perspective discussed deals with power orders between
groups and their different access to social media.
Normative Expectations in Relation to Group
All youths in this study can be seen as part of the same cate-
gory—they are all young people in Grade 7 or 8 interacting
in social media. But the analysis shows that they are con-
structed in different ways in the same category. They are
boys and girls belonging to different peer groups in school.
Their social identities are constructed in relation to how they
identify themselves or being identified of their peers as a
member or not a member of these groups (Berger & Luckman,
1966; Jenkins, 2008; Tajfel, 1981). Most of the youths are
connected to each other through a common interest and they
develop a shared repertoire within these “communities of
practice.” A situated learning appears and they learn from
each other how to act as a member of the specific group
(Lave & Wenger, 1991). For example, they describe them-
selves as “horse girls,” “football players,” “tough guys,” but
also as “outsiders.” A group membership indicates an idea
that there is a difference between those who belong to a spe-
cific group and those who do not. Often, they talk about them
and us. While individual and personal opinions are created
about group members, stereotypic and generalized opinions
often are created about those who do not belong to the group
Related to group affiliations, there are expectations for
what kinds of photos that can be published without any risks
to be insulted online. Michael, Moa, and Hannes (Grade 7)
strongly define themselves as members of specific peer
groups. Moa is a “horse girl” who loves horses and she says
“I just publish photos when I jump with my horse and nice
photos of horses.” Michael is a “skate-boarder” and he has
the same opinion “I just publish nice moves when I skate,
that’s what I do.” Throughout all the interviews, there are lots
of comments about the fear of publishing photos exhibiting
one’s body. Hannes (Grade 7) is also a “skate-boarder” and
Hannes: I don’t want to publish photos of myself
Interviewer: Why not?
Hannes: I don’t know . . . I’m not like that.
Michael, Moa, and Hannes belong to groups that are not
expected to publish photos of their bodies and if they would
publish such a photo it would be rather scary for them. In
their statements it appears that they are acting as expected,
that is, they publish photos that are related to their common
interest. Their photos do not challenge the prevailing order,
instead their online publications strengthen their group
The position in the peer group determines different access
to the online arena. Carl and Sebastian (Grade 7) are two
“well-behaved” boys who are accepted and respected by
peers in the class. They play football and they have, in some
way, power to decide themselves how to act online. But they
challenge neither the teacher nor the hierarchical order in the
class. Neither of them actively participates in the struggle to
become popular by their peers. They have each other, and
they are aware that they are some sort of outsiders looking at
peers acting both offline and online:
Carl: / . . . / those who are popular in society or in school
get more likes than an ordinary boy who publishes a
normal photo of himself.
Interviewer: Can you be popular through publishing spe-
Sebastian: Not like that . . .
Because of their position in the peer group, Carl and Sebastian
cannot participate in the struggle to become popular by pub-
lishing photos of their bodies. The above excerpts are exam-
ples of a subjectification and the process of becoming a
young person accepted in the peer group. Social norms play
an important role in these processes, because a system of
norms is an effective tool not only for the controlling of indi-
viduals but also for integration and social inclusion (Coleman,
1990; Kumashiro, 2002).
Tom and Martin are also students in Grade 7. They are
closed out from social media and it seems that they them-
selves have chosen to be excluded. They have a very low
ranking in the class, which they are fully aware of, and they
will not risk being insulted or being even more excluded
online. For example, Martin says, “I have only a few friends
so I don’t need social media” and interacting online may be
dangerous for him. No one will protect him if someone is
mean. Tom has the same opinion:
Tom: They (classmates; author’s comment) just care
about popularity all the time / . . . / which is completely
Interviewer: Isn’t it important to be popular?
Interviewer: Why not?
Tom: It’s better to have nice friends / . . . / friends who
don’t let me down. Let’s say that I’m in a popular gang
(which I’m not) then they abandoned in order to be
with other friends . . . the risk for being let down is
Tom and Martin have each other and that is enough. They
argue that they do not need social media. This opinion can be
related to Gramsci’s (1971) discussion that subordinated
groups often are adapted to the prevailing order. They them-
selves are a part of the structural inequality culture that cre-
ates subordination and marginalization. It can be seen as a
hegemonic power exercise where the subordinated repro-
duce dominant relationships not based on force and violence.
Instead, there is a fundamental cultural and ideological
acceptance. Accepting or not being aware of the oppression
leads to facilitating the spreading and fortification of it at dif-
ferent social levels (Gramsci, 1971). Tom and Martin accept
being invisible online, and from Kumashiro’s (2002) point of
view being invisible is also a form of oppression.
Social norms are constructions that change over time and
space. To be a “normal” young person implies being accepted
in a specific context. This means that someone has the power
to define what is regarded as normal and not normal. To con-
struct a social norm, there have to be deviations (Coleman,
1990; Kumashiro, 2002). To visualize the social norm, the
youths demonstrate, through their online comments what is
regarded as normality. But, a visual confirmation also
appears when they decide to accept or deny a friend’s online
request. Fabian is a boy in Grade 7, and he is not so popular
in the class. He disturbs the lessons and irritates the peers. In
the excerpt below, Henrik (a classmate of Fabian’s) describes
why he would never accept a friend request from Fabian:
Interviewer: Have you ever turned down someone?
Henrik: Yes, Fabian.
Henrik: Because I’m so bothered when he talks in class
/ . . . /
Interviewer: How does it feel to turned down someone in
the class? Isn’t it mean?
Henrik: Not against Fabian!
Interviewer: Why not?
Henrik: He is mean to others . . . generally irritating . . . he
is obnoxious towards peers sometimes . . . I can’t stand
him . . .
Interviewer: Then it’s ok not to accept him?
Henrik: yeah . . .
For those who are looked upon, more or less, as deviants
there is always a risk being online. Fabian tells me that he
does not like social media and because of that he did not
want to be interviewed.
Normative Expectations in Relation to Gender
As described above, group belonging is one aspect that
affects the online acting spaces. Another aspect deals with
gender. To be an appropriate boy or girl that is accepted and
respected by peers, it is important to act both in accordance
with the prevailing order in the specific online and offline
context, and with the overall expectations in society. Hirdman
(2003) states that the gender system rests on two principles.
The first is that men and women are regarded as separated
from each other; they are complementary with different qual-
ities. The other principle deals with a hierarchical order in
which men are viewed as the norm connected with the power
to construct normality. Some expectations are related to men,
while others are linked to women. Caring, sensibility, and
focusing on relations are some examples of feminine-coded
qualities. Complementary, masculine-coded qualities are
rationality, decision ability, and “hardness” (Hirdman, 2003).
One example of the disparity between boys and girls mani-
fested in this study is the difference in need for affirmation.
Both boys and girls are convinced that girls need more affir-
mation than boys. Because of that, girls send nice comments
to each other all the time. Olivia (Grade 8) and Alice (Grade
7) give some examples:
Alice: / . . . / people for example SMS “How sweet you
are!” and “What nice clothes you had on today!”
Olivia: We comment on each other, like “You look so nice
today!” . . . You don’t say that in reality, but on the
Internet it is not unusual at all . . .
Michael and Sebastian (Grade 7) have explored the difference
between girls’ and boys’ different ways of communicating
online. Michael says that “boys don’t care as much as girls to
become popular. Of course, boys want to be popular / . . . /
girls want to compete . . . all of them want to feel that they get
attention.” Sebastian adds “boys don’t care so much . . . girls
want more self-confidence . . . boys have it!.” Isaac (Grade 7)
distinguishes himself by saying that “I don’t like . . . I don’t
publish my feelings.” Successful boys are acting online in
accordance with appropriate masculinity; they are controlled
and they do not show vulnerability. These opinions follow the
general gender order and are consistent with other studies
(Abiala & Hernwall, 2013; Forsman, 2014; Herring &
Kapidzic, 2015). The youths’ knowledge is often based on
stereotypes and on normative expectations for boys and girls
when they perform their gender identity (Harding, 1986;
Hirdman, 2003). If a boy publishes photos where they show
their body to get likes there is a great risk of being insulted,
because these kinds of photos are female-coded and there is a
great risk to be looked upon as “gay.” Instead, boys often pub-
lish photos where they act; they are “doers.” For girls, it is
more accepted to use boys’ acting space, to publish photos
when they are acting. This is one example of the hierarchical
order between men and women (Hirdman, 2003), that is, boys
and girls have different access to each other’s acting space.
Olof (Grade 8) explains why he never would publish a photo
of his body: “I would be teased by my guy friends . . . be
called gay or something like that.” As a boy it is a great risk to
be marked as female, and Frida (Grade 7) explains that “girls
can write, ‘how cute you are’ every day, but boys think it is
more ‘gay’ than girls do.”
6 SAGE Open
Another example of performing masculinity online deals
with arguments about accepting or not accepting friend
requests. Joseph (Grade 8) is a “tough guy” who does not
like school. He has the power to challenge the school system
as well as teachers and classmates. To maintain his position,
it is important for him to act in an appropriate way, both
online and offline. Bill is another student in this class. He is
only joining the class in practical school subjects, due to cog-
nitive difficulties. He is marginalized in school and has no
friends in the class. Joseph ignores Bill in the classroom and
he never talks to him. When I ask Joseph about the reason
why he does not accept some friend requests online, he says:
Interviewer: Is there any reason why if someone wants to
be friends with you on Facebook . . . is there anyone
that you would ignore?
Joseph: Of course, I would ignore certain ones . . .
Interviewer: Who are they then?
Joseph: Bill for example . . .
Interviewer: Why is he a cp-kid?
Joseph: I add most people, but I would never add him.
Interviewer: Why not?
Joseph: You might hate the person or something.
Bill is a boy who needs care and care-taking is an issue sug-
gesting vulnerability and empathy, which are female-coded.
To preserve his masculinity Joseph has to be cool, not show
himself to be weak. The visibility online reinforces this
endeavor. Through all these acts described above there is a
learning of defining normality as well as what is normatively
correct depending on whether you are a girl or a boy (Harding,
1986; Hirdman, 2003; Kumashiro, 2002).
The Intertwining Between Gender, Sexuality, and
The participants in this study define themselves as either
girls or boys, but within this gender category they perform
differently depending on other categories that are intersect-
ing with the gender category, in this case sexuality.
Historically and traditionally, there have been different
norms and rules related to sexual behavior for men and
women. The inequality appears in this study, for example in
the boys’ fear of being regarded as gay. There is much
research about young people’s sexual identification related
to vulnerability both online and offline. It is very shameful
for a boy to be looked upon as gay. “Doing” masculinity does
not link to homosexuality. The boys are working, more or
less actively, with the characteristics involved for becoming
a “real” man. In these processes, heterosexuality is a strong
marker (Espelage et al., 2008; Friedman et al., 2011; Godley,
2006). Hetero-normativity and masculinity are not only eval-
uated as important in the youths’ online context, but they are
loaded with the necessary power. This means that boys who
actively use markers to show their hetero-normativity and
masculinity are more likely to be looked upon as real men/
boys. Thus, this type of intertwining between sexuality and
gender gains hegemony in the peer group (and in society),
which leads to less risk of being insulted online. With other
words, this intertwining is loaded with sufficient power to
guard normality in the peer group.
In contrast to boys, girls in general do not need to focus on
hetero-normativity in their online interactions. Instead, they
need to adapt and conform to the prevailing view upon girls’/
women’s sexuality. For young girls, there is always a risk of
having a bad reputation related to sexuality. It is very dis-
creditable to be looked upon as someone who is sexually
promiscuous. There is a general opinion in society that a
woman who is sexually active is looked upon as “bad”
(Crawford & Popp, 2003). This view can be seen as a sexual
oppression to remind young girls of their gendered role in the
heterosexual interplay (Rahimi & Liston, 2009). Almazan
and Bain (2015) point out that the regulation of women’s
a norm for females to position themselves and others in sexual
hierarchies, raising regulative discourses around sexuality,
appearances and performances in the private space of their
friendship groups. (p. 2)
This opinion is common in the girls’ statements. A frequent
way is to use the word “slut” when they talk about some girls
in school and what kind of photos they publish. It is impor-
tant to get attention but Sara (Grade 8), for example, would
never publish a photo where she exhibits her body to get
attention. She is aware of the risks and she says,
this person has got a bad reputation . . . look at her! She would
be insulted in school.
In the peer group, some positions are loaded with adequate
power to challenge the intertwining between gender and sex-
uality. The more status the more power to challenge norma-
tive boundaries. In this study, the concept status is seen as the
rights and obligations tied to a given position in the peer
group (Foucault, 1972). Some girls in school are popular,
especially among boys, and they have the power to trans-
gress and challenge prevailing norms without risking being
insulted, instead the power to act online is reinforced. Stina
(Grade 8) explains that “some girls have a kind of status . . .
and it’s clear that if they put out such photos they get even
more.” Ebba (Grade 7) is of the same opinion:
I think that depends on what kind of photos you publish . . .
that’s status. If there is a girl that publishes disgusting photos . . .
when she exhibits her body . . . then all the boys are thinking
. . . wow . . .
A similar point of view emerges in discussions about boys’
online photos. Some positions among boys are loaded with
power to provoke the prevailing order of how to be an appro-
priate boy/man without risking being called gay. These boys
objectifying their bodies online, which commonly is
Interviewer: Girls often publish photos of themselves.
Don’t boys do that?
Henrik: Sometimes/ . . . /if it is a boy who is popular
among girls . . . maybe then I would do it often.
Johan: If you are popular . . .
There are hierarchies developed in the classroom and in
school based on categories and each category is provided
with power. Power is a ticket to interact online and to chal-
lenge normality. It is important to mention that this study
does not discuss the intertwining between positions in the
peer group that underlie the group status in general. The
present interest is to show that high status in the peer group
is connected to adequate power for challenging normative
boundaries online. The result shows that simultaneous pro-
cesses of power create and preserve relations of superiority
and subordination in the peer group.
Concluding Reflection—The Fear of
Becoming an Outsider
This study contributes with perspectives on inequalities in
youths’ online acting spaces. Social media can not only be
regarded from a democratic perspective, it is also an arena
for preserving and consolidating the prevailing order in the
specific context and in society as a whole. The result also
shows that online and offline arenas are intertwined with
each other. Hierarchies and power positions developed
offline, for example in the classroom, are strong markers
both for the online acting space and for being an appropriate
boy/girl. Communication in social media is an effective edu-
cational practice, because of its characteristics. Hidden dis-
courses or positioning processes become visible online, and
because of that, it is an effective tool for both preserving and
challenging normality. Through their online interactions both
boys and girls learn how to define normality as well as how
to regulate who they are and who they supposed to be.
It is important to learn how to act without risks online.
During adolescence, there is a great fear of being excluded
and of becoming an “outsider.” For people in general, it is
very shameful to be excluded publicly, and there is a great
risk in challenging the prevailing order online. As Gramsci
(1971) highlights when he discusses hegemonic processes in
society, it is difficult to transform hierarchies. Hegemonies
can be seen as quiet forms of exercising power without using
direct violence. Both Gramsci (1971) and Kumashiro (2002)
highlight that a subordinated position does not automatically
lead to resistance. Through acceptance or unawareness,
social differences are preserved. For example, Tom and
Martin are aware that peers regard them as some kind of
deviants and they have accepted that they do not have access
to social media. In order not to risk being insulted, they
exclude themselves from interactions in social media.
Instead, they argue that social media is something bad and
that they do not need it for maintaining friendship.
Common sense (Kumashiro, 2002) appears in the partici-
pants’ arguments; that is, some acts are completely funda-
mental and because of that they do not have to be questioned.
For example, when Elin and Johanna discuss a peer who gets
negative comments because she is too private online, they
mean that she has herself to blame because she does not
know the online rules. This argument can be related to
Foucault (1972), who states that “sense” is a power factor
used to oppress the “senseless,” as well as using sense to cre-
ate truth, which justifies acts of distinction and segregation.
In this example, the problem is the girl who has difficulty
balancing between being private and personal and not the
peers who insult her. Another example is when the tough guy
Joseph talks about Bill, he emphasizes the signs of being dif-
ferent in Bill—he is weak and needs care, in contrast to
Joseph, who is strong and cool. They are not solely two boys
in the same class; instead Joseph implicitly emphasizes a
hegemonic explanation of masculinity that regulates the
power order online (and in the classroom, too). From
Foucault’s (1972) point of view, there is a need to understand
how truth becomes “the truth” and not to discover the truth.
When Elin, Johanna, and Joseph argue, they construct the
truth, which is taken for granted in their argumentation.
The result shows that the gender system is constituted by
skills, behavior, appearance, and language that are attached
to the youths as boys or girls. Hirdman (2003) means that the
gender contract is based on hierarchies and separation, which
also appears in their statements. Both boys and girls argue
that there are differences between the genders, which they
have to be aware of in their online interactions. Sebastian
says for example that “girls want more self-confidence . . .
boys have it!.” Hierarchies between boys and girls appear
when they comment on boys and girls published photos,
though it is easier for girls to get access to the boys’ acting
space than vice versa. But boys or girls perform differently
within the gender category. Some intertwining between gen-
der, sexuality, and status are loaded with power to challenge
prevailing order and some are not. The same kind of act can
be regarded as either accepted or norm-breaching depending
upon who the sender is. It can also be verbalized as a con-
struction of inequality, including social relationships based
on interactions in the social world as well as collective pro-
cesses that they are a part of. This interplay also sheds light
on that intersectionality has to be understood as bounded by
both structure and context. There is an ongoing and perma-
nent negotiation between the boys and girls as agents (with
their own experiences) and the surrounding conditions. Both
processes affect the construction of a social identity and by
extension also the possibility of belonging.
8 SAGE Open
This study contributes with perspectives by highlighting
how boys and girls are negotiating their social identity
depending on what is regarded as normality in the specific
context. By their acts the youths construct frames for being
an appropriate boy/girl and at the same time they perform
their social identity. Online they write themselves to a
“being” (Sundén, 2003), and by photos and comments they
are testing what it is like to be a young person. To conclude,
the processes of belonging are complex, dynamic, and
power-loaded phenomena. The social control online is effec-
tive and there are lots of aspects to handle to be an appropri-
ate and accepted young person. The result shows that there is
a risk in talking about young people and their online interac-
tions as if they are one homogeneous group with equal pos-
sibilities to interact online. Instead, there is an ongoing and
constant negotiation with many parallel processes, affecting
the development of a social identity, the position in the peer
group, and how to be a boy or a girl.
Declaration of Conflicting Interests
The author(s) declared no potential conflicts of interest with respect
to the research, authorship, and/or publication of this article.
The author(s) received no financial support for the research, author-
ship, and/or publication of this article.
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