Almost everything I learned about being queer, I learned on the Internet. YouTube was the first place I saw someone come out. Tumblr opened my eyes to an extensive LGBTQ+ community, filled with people expressing themselves unabashedly. Dozens of Google searches and blog posts educated me on the importance of sexual health for everyone, not just heterosexual couples. Without the Internet, I would still be struggling with my sexuality today.
This is not just my story—it’s the story of thousands of LGBTQ+ youth across the world. Studies show that queer youth use the Internet to explore their sexual and gender identities, connect with other LGBTQ+ users, and validate their experiences. The Internet is a critical part of queer youths’ journey toward understanding who they are and solidifying self-acceptance.
Many social media platforms offer a sense of anonymity that allows queer youth to express themselves without fear of retribution. In one study, 73% of LGBTQ+ youth reported being more honest online than in real life. This culture of authenticity that the Internet cultivates enables queer youth to engage meaningfully with communities of people who share their identities. GLSEN released a study showing that two-thirds of LGBTQ+ youth reported using online platforms to connect with other LGBTQ+ people in the past year.
The Internet and other online resources are especially valuable to queer youth of color, whose voices are often drowned out by White queer narratives. Dozens of Tumblr blogs like LGBT For PoC and PoC LGBT make space for queer people of color to form friendships and find communities that embrace every aspect of their identities. Spaces like Twitter can help queer youth to seek diverse representations of LGBTQ+ identities and discover prominent queer activists like Chella Man or Raquel Willis.
For many queer youth, the Internet is also the first point of contact for questions related to mental or sexual health. One study found that 78% of queer youth have searched for sexual health information online, compared to only 19% of heterosexual youth. Queer youth are also more likely to turn to the Internet for this information because they feel they “[do] not have anyone else to ask”. When addressing their own mental health, a recent report by the Trevor Project showed that 76% of LGBTQ+ youth were likely to seek help online in times of crisis. This choice to navigate life’s toughest questions online comes down to the security they receive from the digital space. As Michelle Birkett at the Institute for Sexual and Gender Minority Health and Wellbeing puts it, “Youth prefer to reach out digitally. It’s just where they feel most comfortable going.”
Being on the Internet as a queer youth, however, comes with its own risks. A 2013 study by GLSEN found that LGBTQ+ youth are almost three times more likely to be bullied online than their non-LGBTQ+peers. 32% of LGBTQ+ respondents also reported being sexually harassed online in the past year. This susceptibility to online harassment, combined with the potential for bullying and stigmatization in their “real” lives, puts LGBTQ+ youth at a much higher risk for depression, self-harm, and suicide. The Trevor Project’s National Survey on LGBTQ Youth Mental Health showed that 39% of LGBTQ+ youth seriously considered attempting suicide in the past year—with 54% of nonbinary and transgender youth having seriously considering suicide. These mental health issues magnify when queer youth also hold multiple marginalized identities. The Human Rights Campaign’s 2019 Black & African American LGBTQ Youth Report found that over 80% of the 1,600 respondents reported feeling depressed in the last week, and 90% said they have experienced racial discrimination throughout their lives.
There’s still much that needs to be done to ensure safe spaces for the identity exploration and development of queer youth, both online and offline. We cannot afford to trivialize our responsibility to protect queer youth from the dangers of the Internet. Yet even with all of the risks of emerging technology, we cannot deny the numerous opportunities that these online spaces provide LGBTQ+ youth: to discover themselves, to learn about different communities, and—perhaps most importantly—to finally feel seen. We couldn’t ignore that impact if we tried.