For LGBTQ+ youth, the internet can be an incredible tool for exploration. At the same time, recent reports have made it clear that social media platforms must do more to protect young people from exposure to harmful content. For LGBTQ+ youth and their caregivers, navigating both realities can be complicated.
According to Pew Research, more than 93% of adults in the U.S. use the internet today, alongside 95% of children and teens aged 3–18. While using the internet is generally widespread in the U.S., LGBTQ+ youth spend an average of 45 minutes more a day online than their non-LGBTQ+ peers. The internet can be a place for LGBTQ+ youth to find peers with shared identities, and receive affirming support from others without judgement.
However, LGBTQ+ youth are often targeted for online bullying based on their sexual orientations or gender identities. Like their peers, LGBTQ+ youth may also be exposed to negative messaging about body image on social media. Because so many LGBTQ+ youth use online spaces to find themselves and their community, it is vital that they have safe, affirming experiences while browsing the web.
Children often use the internet from as early as three years old. They may browse websites to complete school assignments or play online games with their friends. As they get older, time spent online typically increases with the use of smartphones and popular social media apps. The ability to connect with friends online is especially important for LGBTQ+ youth. In fact, 50% of LGBTQ+ youth have at least one close online friend, compared to 19% of non-LGBTQ+ youth. LGBTQ+ youth may additionally go online to find out more about their thoughts and feelings, including to learn more about their sexual orientation and gender identity.
While it is important to promote LGBTQ+ inclusive classroom instruction and comprehensive LGBTQ+ inclusive sexual health education, online spaces allow LGBTQ+ youth to have privacy while exploring these topics in depth. They also provide resources for topics such as coming out, affirming mental health support, navigating same-sex relationships or transgender and non-binary identities that educators may not have direct experience with.
I’m a bisexual non-binary person, but my understanding of who I am today is not how I have always understood myself. At the age of 12 I identified as a girl, and I liked girls and boys. I was bisexual. What really allowed me to understand my identity more accurately was the queer and trans friends I made online from early age while playing online games. My best friend was out online and was gay, but now she’s a trans woman. She was really invested in her faith community but wasn’t able to be herself as an LGBTQ+ person, and it was really hard for her because she wanted to be a part of her faith community. It was so important to have that online friendship with someone else who was going through similar struggles. Over the years, from middle school throughout college, we better came to understand our identities through long night conversations over text and online communication. I don’t know if I would be alive today if I didn’t have my best friend who I met online as a kid. We’re both 26 now and have met each other in person. Now we text less about our identities, and more the struggles of being an adult.
While online spaces can reduce feelings of isolation among LGBTQ youth, cyberbullying is sadly still an issue. HRC Foundation observed in the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s 2019 Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance System that 25% of LGBTQ youth, 33% of LGBTQ youth of color and 34% of transgender youth are bullied online or electronically. It is important for youth to learn internet safety and how to report negative interactions and hate speech to social media apps, school officials or to a parent or guardian.
Another major concern is the impact of stereotypes around body image on LGBTQ+ youth during an important period of their growth and development. While social media allows for LGBTQ+ youth to find like-minded peers, it has often become a tool for perpetuating negative attitudes around body image that already exist in our society. These harmful stereotypes about “fit,” “beautiful” or “normal” bodies have long been broadcast through movies and TV shows, magazines and music, but social media has created a powerful new avenue for them to spread.
LGBTQ+ youth are particularly susceptible to unhealthy messaging around body image, as they often have different ways of expressing their sexual orientations or gender identities from their peers. It is important for LGBTQ+ youth to be loved and accepted for who they are, both by their parents and guardians and by their peers. Social media companies must do more to dismantle the pervasive negative stereotypes around body image that exist in our society, and especially on their platforms. In the meantime, parents and guardians can speak to their children about body image issues and monitor their use of social media to prevent harmful exposure.
I am a board-certified Child and Adolescent Psychiatrist and work at an academic medical center. I specialize in trauma, depression, anxiety and LGBTQ affirming mental health care. A lot of LGBTQ youth do not have access to supportive spaces or people in person, for any number of reasons. 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. 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.
Allowing LGBTQ+ youth to explore their identities is vital for them to mature into fully formed adults. LGBTQ+ youth may also use online spaces to connect with peers who have similar experiences. Research suggests that two-thirds of LGBTQ+ youth (62%) may use the Internet to connect with other LGBTQ+ people at any point in a given year. Although positive LGBTQ+ representation has increased recently, LGBTQ+ youth, like LGBTQ+ people in general, are still a minority in wider society. Safe, and affirming online LGBTQ+ spaces allow them to feel like they are part of a community and worthy of respect and celebration.
According to HRC’s analysis of the CDC’s Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance survey, 31% of LGBTQ+ youth, 43% of transgender youth and 40% of questioning youth have been bullied at school, compared to 16% of their non-LGBTQ+ peers. Online spaces can be a respite from this harm, letting them know they are not alone. For some, these spaces can even provide a lifeline that they may not be able to find elsewhere.
I have a 14 year old transgender son named Daniel and his pronouns are he/him/his. He will be going into 8th grade in the fall. He is funny, into music and fashion, and a thoughtful friend. His hobbies are playing Minecraft, video games, sewing, skateboarding, and playing the guitar/drums. We speak to Daniel continually about online safety, and we monitor his phone activity. We make sure to keep track of who he is talking to online and remind him that what we post online is forever. Connection to community and resources is vital to the wellbeing of our kids, and they are often able to find that online. I think having accurate information available and representation makes a world of difference in our kids’ lives. This is also helpful for parents who are learning and looking for resources to support our children.
It’s true that today’s LGBTQ+ youth come out at a younger age than previous generations, which could be attributed to a more accepting society. This may alleviate years of unnecessary stress and anxiety while allowing these young people to build more genuine relationships with family and friends. Coming out at a younger age can also come with challenges, including rejection and harassment during critical years of social and emotional development. In the United States today, there are an estimated 14 million LGBTQ+ adults and 2 million LGBTQ+ youth. Positive online LGBTQ+ spaces allow LGBTQ+ people to find themselves and develop the words to express their own authentic identities. After all, 73% of LGBTQ+ youth say they are more honest online than in the “real world.”
Anti-LGBTQ+ activists often use concerns about internet safety in order to spread harmful rumors about the LGBTQ+ community. You may see opponents of trans people specifically use junk science by Lisa Littman at Brown University to falsely claim that access to social media and the internet has created a “contagion” that causes many youth to mistakenly identify as transgender. Littman’s paper contained so many erroneous statements that one of her colleagues in her same academic department, Arjee Javellana Restar, published a critique of the study looking at fundamental errors in Littman’s paper. Restar explains Littman’s bias by the way the paper falsely treats transgender identity in a pathology framework, in which identifying as transgender is wrongly treated like a disease. Restar also explains how Littman’s paper was based on data in which responses were given information that skewed Littman’s results to meet her own personal goals to confirm her theories. Furthermore, Littman’s data consists of parents or caregivers reporting about their children, rather than transgender youth themselves. The parents and caregivers in Littman’s data were very unsupportive, with 77% of the surveyed parents believing that their child’s identification as transgender was incorrect, skewing the results in a negative way that would support Littman’s personal goals and theories. Another bias in Littman’s paper was its overall failure to use robust and valid ways of measuring and analyzing its data. Overall, Littman’s paper had so many issues that led its publishing academic journal, PLOS ONE, to conduct a post-publication reassessment and require Littman make additional revisions to the paper in order for it to retain publication in the journal.
Online LGBTQ+ spaces can be wonderful resources for youth to learn about themselves and find like-minded peers. That’s why it is so important to ensure that LGBTQ+ youth practice internet safety and know how to report or flag cyberbullying or hate speech. It is also important for LGBTQ+ youth to be protected from harmful messaging around body image on social media. You may wish to speak to your child about internet safety in a positive, supportive manner that maximizes the benefits of self-exploration while negating the risks of false information, cyberbullying and negative stereotypes around body image.
If a child or teen feels supported, they will be more likely to trust you and come to you with safety concerns. They may also feel more comfortable speaking to you about their sexual orientation and gender identity. With support from their parents and caregivers, as well as safe and affirming online spaces, LGBTQ+ youth will have the opportunity to grow authentically into confident LGBTQ+ adults.
What You Can Do
Everyone should educate themselves about LGBTQ+ people and their experiences. Reading this resource is just one of many steps. Here are a few things you can do right now to better support LGBTQ+ youth:
Read the HRC guide for how to be an ally to LGBTQ+ people.
Work to better understand transgender people and their lives.
Read these six points on myths about transgender people.
Parents and caregivers need to affirm their LGBTQ+ children and work to create communities that are inclusive of LGBTQ+ people.
Read through HRC’s various resources for parents and caregivers on our Parents for Transgender Equality Council landing page.
Work with your school community to bring Welcoming Schools to your district.
Encourage your child’s school provide staff training on LGBTQ+ inclusion
Join your nearest PFLAG chapter or attend one of their monthly support groups for parents and caregivers with LGBTQ+ children.
If you are a youth-serving professional, knowing the evidence and practices to create safe and affirming environments is important.
Know the evidence about LGBTQ+ youth experiences.
Use this resource to take concrete action to support LGBTQ+ youth.
Save the date and sign up for HRC’s annual Time to THRIVE conference.
Are you a parent/guardian, educator, counselor, or other youth-serving professional? We hope that you'll consider attending HRC Foundation's annual Time to THRIVE conference aimed at promoting safety, inclusion and well-being for LGBTQ+ youth. Registration is now open for our ninth annual conference, which will take place virtually on February 8-10, 2022.