The surgeon general’s warning Tuesday about social media’s “profound risk of harm” to young people included a significant qualification. For some of them, the warning said, social media can be beneficial to health in important ways.
For one group in particular — the growing share of young people who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer — social media can be a lifeline, researchers and teenagers say. Especially for those growing up in unwelcoming families or communities, social media often provides a sense of identity and belonging at a crucial age, much earlier than for many LGBTQ people in previous generations.
“It’s a lifeline for folks to receive information and to really see that they are not alone, and there are so many people like them,” said Jessica Fish, who studies LGBTQ youth and their families at the University of Maryland School of Public Health. “They can feel some sense of connection, and realize there is a place for them.”
Growing up in a sheltered Mormon and Christian community in Kansas, Cassius O’Brien-Stiner, 19, said he had little exposure to LGBTQ identities: “I was pretty unaware that even being gay was a thing.”
Then O’Brien-Stiner, who is transgender, started using Facebook and YouTube as an adolescent, and eventually found an online group for queer people. He has had some negative and even dangerous experiences online, he said, including cyberbullying. But it was also where he first learned the word “trans.”
“It was weird, feeling completely alone and then, suddenly, there were thousands of people who felt the same way I felt, on a spectrum,” said O’Brien-Stiner, who now attends the University of Kansas. “It was both eye-opening and really comforting.”
The surgeon general’s advisory focused on social media’s effect on young people’s mental health and well-being. It noted that its use is associated with problems like depression, cyberbullying and eating disorders, and it can displace vital activities like sleeping, exercising and spending time with friends in person.
LGBTQ teenagers may face additional risks related to their identities, including hateful language or sexual victimization. They are more susceptible to cyberbullying, research has shown, and it can have negative effects on their emotions, behavior and academics.
Yet a variety of research over the decade since social media became ubiquitous among teenagers has found that often, social media use has been more beneficial than not for LGBTQ youth. This includes sites like TikTok, Tumblr, Discord and YouTube, as well as LGBTQ-focused sites like Q Chat Space and TrevorSpace.
Young people use social media to explore their identities, research has found. By allowing them to do so, it has probably contributed to the fact that LGBTQ people have begun coming out earlier in their lives, which can have long-term positive effects on mental health.
LGBTQ youth go online to find friends and seek emotional support, and to search for information about their identities and health. During pandemic lockdowns, when some were home with families who did not support them, online communities provided them with acceptance.
Though data shows that the mental health of LGBTQ teens is worse than that of straight teens, it can be improved by being online, said Shelley L. Craig, a Canada Research Chair in sexual and gender minority youth at the University of Toronto. Her research has 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 environment.
They often feel safer online, she said, because they can log off or remove their profile in a way they can’t if a school bully is harassing them or a teacher or family member is saying something offensive.
“The language these kids are using to describe social media in my research is: ‘It’s my home,’ ‘It’s my family,’ ‘It’s kept me alive,’” she said. “We’ve found it has built LGBTQ youth’s resilience, and given them hope.”
Fish compared social media to gay bars — a place LGBTQ people go “for community, to meet people, to be in safe spaces and to discover who they are.” Just as drinking alcohol is not without risks, she said, neither is the internet. The challenge is to mitigate the harms, while enabling young people to experience the benefits — by teaching digital literacy, for instance, and making sites safer for young people.
At Roosevelt High School in Portland, Oregon, members of the queer-straight alliance, a student group, said social media had accelerated their understanding of their identities and their acceptance among peers.
“Representation on social media is a huge part of it,” said Regan Palmer, 16. “It’s more accessible to see the different variations you can be, and know that sexuality is not a binary, it’s a spectrum.”
Her classmate Jareth Leiker, 16, said seeing people come out online helped young people do it in their own lives: “To see someone else have the courage to do something, you have the courage.”
Eleanor Woosley, 15, said: “More people who are gay came out on social media and then more people were like, ‘Hey, you sound like how I feel,’ and it just kept going like that.”