It’s #TransAwarenessWeek internationally and we’re talking about teens this month at QueerDoc. Last week, we discussed our approach to gender-affirming care for youth (TLDR: WE DO IT!) This week, we’re talking about the risks and benefits of social media for LGBTQ+ youth.
If you dare to search “dangers of social media for youth” you may not be surprised to receive pages of links detailing the risks of too much social media:
(Google search, 11/12/2021)
If you persist in scrolling, some hope appears:
These risks and benefits may be different or heightened for LGBTQ+ youth. And since we love to talk about risks and benefits here at QueerDoc, that’s what we’re going to do!
The Trevor Project National Survey on LGBTQ Youth Mental Health 2021
One of the key findings of the Trevor Project survey was that social media has both positive and negative impacts on the mental health and well-being of LGBTQ+ youth: 96% of participants said that social media positively impacted them, while 88% said it negatively impacted them.
That’s a lot of overlap!
Affirming spaces have a positive impact on youth:
The Trevor survey also found that when transgender and nonbinary youth have access to gender-affirming spaces, they have lower rates of suicidal ideation and attempts. Thankfully, among the Trevor survey participants, 71% of transgender and nonbinary youth have access to affirming spaces online. A recent analysis of studies about risk and resilience factors among gender expansive youth concurs: “social support, particularly from parents, was associated with reduced symptoms of anxiety, depression, self-harm, suicidal ideation, and suicide attempts” (Tankersley, et al.)
However, finding those affirming spaces online may be difficult or risky:
The internet can be a microcosm of the off-line world. Just as in “real” life, youth experience both direct and indirect negative actions online, such as gendered expectations, microaggressions rooted in prejudice, and outright bullying and gatekeeping. Even within LGBTQ+ communities online, individual youth may not be affirmed or supported (Doss.)
More Hours Online
Research indicates that LGBTQ+ youth spend more time using social media than their cisgender and heterosexual peers (Paceley, et al., Jenzen, Gillig.) There is also established research indicating that social media when used excessively has a negative effect on well-being (Huang.) It might seem natural, then, to wonder if LGBTQ+ youth are at higher risk for the negative effects of social media.
Like so many other questions about LGBTQ+ individuals and health, there isn’t a lot of research. Most studies are small: we can’t draw strong conclusions from these.
One study looked at depressive symptoms of LGBTQ youth before and after a no-social-media LGBTQ-affirming summer camp. (Gillig.) This study found that social media use before camp was not associated with symptoms of depression. However, teens who:
- used less social media before camp and
- had depressive symptoms before camp
- had more depressive symptoms post-camp compared to teens who used more social media before camp.
Wait – less social media use meant higher depression?
Social activity and engagement is a key factor.
This summer camp was focused on providing a safe and affirming space for LGBTQ+ youth. The author theorizes that the teens who used social media more had more social support through their online communities in their daily lives outside of camp (Gillig.)
Other studies appear to agree.
Multiple studies echo that social connectedness can be found online, especially for sex and gender minority (SGM) youth. In a study of British youth, the author notes that “LGBTQ online resources and spaces are important sources of information and socialisation [sic] for trans youth…. Various studies indicate that LGBTQ youth go online and seek out LGBTQ-related content for a sense of belonging and to socialise (Jenzen.)
And in the USA:
A study of midwestern non-urban youth in America stressed the importance of social media for youth without affirming spaces in their local communities. One participant described the role of seeking out peers online as:
“you can only meet people online because they’re just everywhere, but not where you are.”
Smart Online Users
Youth in this study showed remarkable resilience and savvy in their internet use:
A common worry of parents is that teens will be targeted by ill-meaning adults online. One teen in the study noted that the ability to disconnect from online relationships if they feel unsafe is a key benefit (Paceley.)
Both midwestern and British youth were very aware that the larger internet is not necessarily a safe space and that they still needed to navigate through potentially unwelcoming or unsafe spaces online. Jenzen writes that “Young LGBTQ people are very aware of how the cis-gendered, straight and white norms that surround them also prevail online and will have to be negotiated” and “it is perhaps not surprising to find that trans youth expressed a distrust of mainstream platforms, commercial search engines and mass media.”
A crucial lifeline
All of the authors read for this blog stress that affirming spaces are vital – both online and in local communities – for LGBTQ youth. For many, social media is their only source of affirming community at a time when community can be life-saving. This doesn’t mean that there are no risks, of course. Nighttime use can disrupt sleep. Other people’s carefully curated posts can make your own life look boring or spur feelings of inadequacy. Bullying, racism, and transphobia don’t magically disappear. It remains imperative that we build more affirming spaces for youth and that we help them learn physical and online safety skills.
But the kids, the kids are alright.
Next week we’ll be sharing some of our favorite online resources for LGBTQ+ teens.
MSU Graduate Theses. 3317.
Paceley, Megan S.; Goffnett, Jacob; Sanders, Levi; Gadd-Nelson, James (2020). Sometimes You Get Married on Facebook: The Use of Social Media among Nonmetropolitan Sexual and Gender Minority Youth. Journal of Homosexuality, (), 1–20. doi:10.1080/00918369.2020.1813508
Jenzen, Olu (2017). Trans youth and social media: moving between counterpublics and the wider web. Gender, Place & Culture, (), 1–16. doi:10.1080/0966369X.2017.1396204
Gillig, Traci K. (2020). Longitudinal analysis of depressive symptoms among LGBTQ youth at a social media-free camp. Journal of Gay & Lesbian Mental Health, (), 1–15. doi:10.1080/19359705.2020.1789018