Home » Uncategorized » Viewing Digital Space(s) through Bronfenbrenner’s Ecological Model

Viewing Digital Space(s) through Bronfenbrenner’s Ecological Model

In 2003, Renn and Arnold published an important and groundbreaking article on how higher education and student affairs researchers and practitioners might re-envision research on college student peer culture through use of Urie Bronfenbrenner’s Bioecological Development Model.

Bronfenbrenner (1979; 2005) proposed that four environmental contexts were important to understanding the proximal processes of human development across the lifespan.

  1. Microsystems consisting of “structures and processes taking place in an immediate setting containing the developing person (e.g. home, classroom, playground)” (Bronfenbrenner, 2005, p. 80);
  2. Mesosystems, comprised of the interaction between various microsystems;
  3. Exosystems, comprised of interactions between two or more settings, “at least one of which does not ordinarily contain the developing person” (Bronfenbrenner, 2005, p. 80); and
  4. Macrosystems, defined as the “overarching pattern[s] of ideology and organization. . . common to a particular culture or subculture.

Renn and Arnold (2003) created a graphic representation of Bronfenbrenner’s model as applied to higher education, encouraging a more holistic understanding of immediate environmental contexts, as well as larger environmental contexts proposed to exist in the Exosystem and Macrosystem, in accounting for research on college student development.

Digital Space(s) as examined through the Ecological Model

It is a proposition of my dissertation that we must expand our understanding of environmental contexts to include digital space(s), particularly social media. Doing so helps researchers, practitioners, and educators to begin accounting for the potential impact of learning that occurs in these unique environmental contexts. Renn (2012) first expressed the possibility that Bronfenbrenner’s model may be utilized to discuss digital environmental contexts as well, though until now an exact articulation of the parallels between Bronfenbrenner’s model and digital social media has not been attempted or articulated in the literature.

Given that upwards of 90% of college students engage in some form of social media (National Survey of Student Engagement [NSSE], 2012; Pew Research Center Internet & American Life Project, 2013), accounting for digital space(s) in our understanding of identity issues is important and necessary. The digital technological revolution is much more than a macrosystemic shift in society’s values, culture, or mode of operation. In fundamentally altering the ways human beings connect, communicate, interact, and explore self, digital social media environments have the potential of altering the trajectories of human identity emergence. Bronfenbrenner (1979; 2005), who believed greatly in the impacts of historical moment on the developmental possibilities and trajectories of human beings, would almost certainly view digital social media environments as necessary for inclusion in any holistic examination of human development.

We can use Bronfenbrenner’s (1979; 2005) Ecological Development Model to frame and include digital spaces.

  1. Microsystems: Digital social media platforms become additional microsystems to be considered in the proximal processes of development and learning. Each platform, as a result of it’s unique digital architecture, affordances, and imagined networked publics (boyd, 2014) allow for different articulations of self, different learning, and different interaction. Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, YouTube, Google+, Instagram, Snapchat, and many other platforms could each be considered a separate microsystem.
  2. Mesosystems: Digital social media environments interact with other microsystems – school, home, work, religious institutions, and other physical microsystems – are still important locations of proximal processes of development. Social media users must navigate the interaction between digital environments and physical environments in a complex set of relational processes. boyd (2014) refers to this process as avoiding identity and context collapse.
  3. Exosystems: Locations where programming and structural decisions are made concerning each social media platform. Decisions about digital social media platform architecture are often made by someone other than the individual user, but those decisions profoundly impact the way(s) the individual may utilize, conform to, or disassociate from the platform (Carroll, Howard, Vetere, Peck, & Murphy, 2001). In addition, social media use policies (workplace, school, or other policies), as well as Net Neutrality, Privacy, and other law(s) may impact the way a user engages with different systems.
  4. Macrosystem: Society’s attitude toward technology and it’s possibilities and limitations, as well as the vast proliferation of digital technologies, particularly social media technologies, into every aspect of the human and college student experience must be accounted for. Bronfenbrenner (1979; 2005) believed that historical period greatly impacted the potential developmental trajectory of human beings.

We can graphically represent the addition of digital spaces into the already graphically represented model proposed by Renn and Arnold (2003).

SM with Bronfenbrenner Graphic JPGGraphic by Paul Eaton (2014)


Any truly holistic examination of student identity needs to account for the influence of environmental conditions on the human experience. Bronfenbrenner’s (1979; 2005) model helps researchers, educators, and practitioners to think more broadly about the many environmental conditions that may impact an individual student’s experience, learning, and identity emergence.

College student development theory has greatly expanded articulations of environmental impacts on developmental trajectories, particularly in the most recently articulated Model of Multiple Dimensions of Identity (Jones & Abes, 2013) and the critical readings of this model through theoretical conceptions such as Critical Race Theory, Queer Theory, and Intersectionality Theory. I believe as educators we can expand this conversation even further by accounting for digital space(s); utilizing Bronfenbrenner’s (1979; 2005) conception of levels of environmental context is one possibility for expanding this discussion and including digital space(s) in our conception of environmental conditions. This appears to me to be a necessary, critical, and crucial process as we continue to push forward a 21st century research agenda on student identity issues.


boyd, d. (2014). It’s complicated: The social lives of networked teens. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Bronfenbrenner, U. (1979). The ecology of human development: Experiments by nature and design. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Bronfenbrenner, U. (2005). Making human beings human: Bioecological perspectives on human development. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Carroll, J., Howard, S., Vetere, F., Peck, J., & Murphy, J. (2001, December). Identity, power and fragmentation in cyberspace: Technology appropriation by young people. In Proceedings of the 12th Australasian Conference on Information Systems (ACIS 2001) (Vol 1., pp. 95-102).

Jones, S. R. & Abes, E. S. (2013). Identity development of college students: Advancing frameworks for multiple dimensions of identity. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

National Survey of Student Engagement (NSSE). (2012). Promoting student learning and institutional improvement: Lessons from NSSE at 13. Annual results 2012. Retrieved from http://nsse.iub.edu.

Pew Research Center Internet & American Life Project. (2013). 72% of online adults are social networking users. Retrieved from http://pewinternet.org.

Renn, K. A. & Arnold, K. D. (2003). Reconceptualizing research on college student peer culture. The Journal of Higher Education, 74(3), 261-291.

Renn, K. A. (2012). Approaches to college student development. In K.A. Renn & R. D. Reason (Eds.), College students in the United States: Characteristics, experiences, and outcomes (pp. 114-133). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.


1 Comment

  1. Jeanne Klein says:

    I presume you’ll be splicing in how much TIME college students spend using media in comparison to their time spent on academic work. Have you found any studies on this yet?

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