In digital and online spaces, LGBTQ+ youth can find supportive networks and helpful resources to provide them with the tools they need to live authentically. LGBTQ+ youth can find an endless amount of helpful information which allows them to better acquaint themselves with their identities and even connect with others who identify as they do. However, there can also be encounters that put LGBTQ+ youth in dangerous or detrimental situations.
"We need to provide youth with guidance and best practice tips and tools so that they can safely and confidently navigate online spaces and find meaningful ways to connect with LGBTQ+ peers and find live-enriching resources,” said Kahn.
That’s why the HRC Foundation released “How Online Communities and Resources Help LGBTQ+ Youth Live Authentically,” a new digital report which highlights both the benefits and the dangers of online communities for LGBTQ+ young people.
According to a study by GLSEN, LGBTQ+ youth spend an average of 45 minutes more per day online than their non-LGBTQ+ peers. Those 45 minutes can be spent searching for helpful resources on transgender issues or connecting with other bisexual youth across the country, but it also extends the possibility of a young individual encountering harassment or discrimination.
“This is especially true for those with identities that are often marginalized in our society. But there needs to also be concerns for safety, as they do navigate those online spaces as they are key to self-acceptance and building resilience," said Pompei.
Data analyzed by HRC Foundation from state health departments and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that roughly 25% of LGBTQ+ youth experienced cyberbullying. To help foster positive and affirming online experiences, parents, guardians and relatives of LGBTQ+ youth should have meaningful conversations with them about practicing internet safety, such as knowing how to report cyberbullying and understanding information credibility.
In our “How Online Communities and Resources Help LGBTQ+ Youth Live Authentically” report, Dr. Natalia Ramos, a board-certified child and adolescent psychiatrist, said that “social connection, whether online or in person, with people who have similar experiences, interests and/or traits can be incredibly powerful and protective.”
“Given I mostly work with teenagers and their families, the topic of online safety is omnipresent,” Ramos said. “With youth, I often work on identifying how we assess safety, outcomes of particular decisions, and strategies we can use to assert our boundaries with others. Another key target is working with youth to identify safe spaces online, for example those with moderators and/or reliable rules.”
HRC Youth Ambassador Jalen Smith, a transgender youth from California, understands the importance of internet safety and knowing how to navigate online spaces and communities.
“Online communities and spaces not only helped me feel supported, but they allowed me to better understand my identity,” said Smith. “I'm confident that there are many others like myself that can attest to the importance of having a community remotely and how it has simultaneously allowed us to grow independently. Though the existence of online communities can really empower queer youth, they can also prove to be unsafe places for a very vulnerable group of young people.”
With one in six adults in Generation Z identifying as LGBTQ+, more than any previous generation, there is more content focused on LGBTQ+ topics than ever before. This presents more opportunity for the spread of misinformation and blatant anti-LGBTQ+ rumors and public attacks, such as a published paper from Lisa Littman at Brown University which falsely claimed that social media and the internet has created a “contagion” that causes many youth to mistakenly identify as transgender.
“Researchers and policymakers have a responsibility to ensure that their findings are characterized accurately,” said Charleigh J. Flohr, senior research manager for HRC Foundation’s Public Education & Research program. “Lisa Littman’s paper has been rejected by many in the academic community — to the point that the publishing company required her to revise it. Despite the paper’s numerous limitations, it has been used by opponents of transgender equity to delegitimize the real experiences of transgender kids.
“Transgender people are real, and junk research used irresponsibly in policymaking harms the physical safety and overall well-being of transgender kids," said Flohr. "These harms can be traumatizing for LGBTQ+ kids to come across on the internet or on social media. We have to equip adults, caregivers and youth serving professionals with the necessary tools to teach our kids how to navigate these online spaces safely."
Some online communities and spaces have become more inclusive of LGBTQ+ people. Some social media platforms like Instagram and LinkedIn allow users to include their pronouns on their profiles. For Pride Month, platforms like Facebook featured rainbow profile frames to allow their users to show their support for the LGBTQ+ community and YouTube hosted a multi-hour, star-studded livestream event celebrating the community. But there is much work to be done to address concerns impacting the LGBTQ+ community online.
Some applications have even taken measures to provide safety ratings, assuring someone whether a neighborhood or establishment is LGBTQ+ inclusive or not. Google also offers a feature that allows businesses to label themselves as “LBGTQ+ friendly” or “transgender-safe” spaces. Ultimately, parents or guardians should also take it upon themselves to review the content their children and young adults are engaging with.
“How Online Communities and Resources Help LGBTQ+ Youth Live Authentically'' includes resources designed to help non-LGBTQ+ folks and LGBTQ+ folks alike support LGBTQ+ youth and the issues affecting them in and out of online communities. HRC’s social media accounts on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and, most recently, TikTok, are online spaces that lift up the voices and experiences of LGBTQ+ youth. Our channels aim to provide positive experiences that celebrate their queer identities and connect them with helpful resources.