The Surgeon General’s warning on Tuesday about the “significant risk of harm” social media had on young people contained an important caveat. For some of them, the warning says, social media can be health-promoting in important ways.
For one group in particular — the growing proportion of young people who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer — social media can be a lifeline, researchers and teens say. Especially for those growing up in unwelcome families or communities, social media often instills a sense of identity and belonging at a crucial age, much earlier than for many LGBTQ people of previous generations.
“It’s a lifeline for people to get information and really see that they’re not alone, and there are so many people like them,” said Jessica Fish, an LGBTQ researcher at the University of Maryland School of Public Health. young people and their families. “They can feel a certain sense of connection and realize that there is a place for them.”
Cassius O’Brien-Stiner, 19, grew up in a sheltered community of Latter-day Saints and Christians in Kansas and said he had little exposure to LGBTQ identities: “I didn’t realize there was even a thing to be gay.”
Then, as a teenager, O’Brien-Stiner, who is transgender, started using Facebook and YouTube and eventually started an online group for queer people. He has had some negative and even dangerous experiences online, including cyberbullying. There he also learned the word “trans” for the first time.
“It was weird feeling completely alone, and then all of a sudden there were thousands of people who felt the same way on a spectrum that I did,” said O’Brien-Stiner, who now attends the University of Kansas. “It was both eye-opening and really comforting.”
The Surgeon General’s advice focused on the impact of social media on the mental health and well-being of young people. Its use has been found to be linked to issues like depression, cyberbullying, and eating disorders, and can replace vital activities like sleeping, exercising, and spending time with friends in person.
LGBTQ teens may face additional risks related to their identity, including hateful language or sexual victimization. Research has shown that they are more vulnerable to cyberbullying and that it can have a negative impact on their emotions, behavior and academic performance.
Yet a plethora of research over the decade since social media became ubiquitous among teenagers has found that LGBTQ youth use of social media has often been more beneficial than it is not. This includes sites like TikTok, Tumblr, Discord, and YouTube, as well as LGBTQ-oriented sites like Q Chat Space and TrevorSpace.
Research has found that young people use social media to explore their identity. By allowing them to do so, it likely helped LGBTQ people start coming out earlier in their lives, which can have long-term positive mental health implications.
LGBTQ youth go online to make friends, seek emotional support, and seek information about their identity and health. During the pandemic lockdowns, when some lived with families who didn’t support them, online communities offered them acceptance.
Although data shows that the mental health of LGBTQ teens is worse than that of straight teens, it can be improved through online activity, said Shelley L. Craig, Canada research professor of youth from sexual and gender minorities at the University of Toronto . Her research found that LGBTQ youth find two things online that are known to reduce depression and suicidal thoughts: hope and a sense of control over their actions and those around them.
They often feel safer online, she said, because they can log out or remove their profile in ways they can’t if a school bully is harassing them or a teacher or family member says something offensive.
“The language these kids use to describe social media in my research is: ‘It’s my home,’ ‘It’s my family,’ ‘It kept me alive,'” she said. “We found that it strengthened the resilience of LGBTQ youth and gave them hope.”
Fish likened social media to gay bars — a place LGBTQ people go “to have fellowship, to meet people, to be in safe places, and to find out who they are.” Like drinking alcohol, the Internet is not without its risks, she said. The challenge is to mitigate the harm while allowing young people to experience the benefits – for example by teaching digital skills and ensuring websites for young people.
At Roosevelt High School in Portland, Oregon, members of the Queer-Straight Alliance, a student group, said social media accelerated their understanding of their identity and acceptance among their peers.
“Social media representation is a big part of that,” said Regan Palmer, 16. “It’s more accessible to see the different variations that you can be and to know that sexuality isn’t a binary phenomenon, it’s a spectrum.” .”
Her classmate Jareth Leiker, 16, said seeing what people are saying online has helped young people: “To see someone else have the courage to do something, has the courage.”
Eleanor Woosley, 15, said: “More people who are gay came out on social media and then more people said, ‘Hey, you sound like how I feel,’ and it just kept going.”
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.