Teens today have grown up on the Internet, and social media has served as a place where LGBTQ youth in particular can develop their identities.
Scholarship about the online experiences of LGBTQ youth has traditionally focused on cyberbullying. But understanding both the risks and benefits of online support is critical to helping LGBTQ youth thrive both online and offline.
I am a senior research scientist studying the benefits and challenges of adolescent social technology and digital media use. My colleagues, Rachel Hodes and Amanda Richter, and I recently conducted a study on the social media experiences of LGBTQ youth, and we found that online networks can provide important resources for them to discover their identity and connect with others in the community. Huh.
The increased risk of cyberbullying facing LGBTQ youth is well documented. LGBTQ youth are nearly three times more likely to be bullied online than their straight, cisgender peers. This can result in increased feelings of depression and suicidal ideation: 56% of sexual minorities experience depression, and 35% experience suicidal thoughts as a direct result of cyberbullying.
However, the digital landscape may be changing.
Our 2019 survey of 1,033 children aged 10 to 16 found any difference between the amount of cyberbullying reported by straight versus sexual minority youth living in a relatively progressive part of the US known for legalizing same-sex marriage was not found. Some social media platforms like Tumblr are considered a safer haven for sexual minorities than others, especially during the COVID-19 lockdown. This is despite previous censorship of LGBTQ content on some platforms due to bias in the algorithm.
LGBTQ youth tend to have smaller online social networks than their straight peers. We found that LGBTQ youth were significantly less likely to engage with their online friends than their straight peers. In contrast, LGBTQ youth are more likely to have friends they only know online, and view these online friends as more socially supportive than their personal friends.
The LGBTQ youth we surveyed in our study were more likely to join an online group to reduce their feelings of social isolation or loneliness, suggesting that they were more likely to access social media networks outside of their individual peer circles. Was able to reach out and connect with him. In supportive and reassuring ways.
Despite living in an area with high levels of acceptance towards sexual minorities, our study participants felt the need to isolate and hide parts of their identity online. Compared to non-LGBTQ children, they were less likely to have online friends with family members and more likely to engage in social media sites that their parents would disapprove of. And about 39% said they had no one to talk to about their sexual orientation.
Not only surviving, but thriving online
Despite the risks of online harassment and isolation, social media can give LGBTQ youth a place to seek their sexual identities and promote mental well-being.
In 2007, Australian researchers conducted one of the earliest studies on how Internet communities serve as safe spaces for LGBTQ youth who face hostile environments at home. Their survey of 958 youth aged 14 to 21 found that anonymity and the lack of geographic boundaries in the digital space provide an ideal practice base for coming out, engaging with a communal homosexual culture, non-heterosexual intimacy. and socializes with other LGBTQ youth.
The Internet also provides important resources about LGBTQ topics. LGBTQ youth can use online resources to educate themselves about sexual orientation and gender identity terminology, learn about gender change, and find LGBTQ spaces in their local community. The Internet can also be a useful tool for identifying LGBTQ-friendly physicians, physicians, and other care providers.
Ultimately, online platforms can serve as a springboard for LGBTQ activism. A 2013 report by the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network that surveyed 1,960 LGBTQ youth ages 13 to 18 found that 77% had participated in an online community supporting a social cause . While 68% of LGBTQ youth volunteered in person, 22% said they only felt comfortable getting involved online or via text. This indicates that online spaces can be an important resource for promoting citizen engagement.
While social media is not without its dangers, it can often serve as a tool for LGBTQ youth to build stronger connections to both their local and virtual communities and to communicate about social issues that are important to them.
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