By Tyler Snell
The Internet has proven to be a revolutionary tool that has changed the world – and like many such innovations before it, it’s mostly a blessing, but a little bit of a curse. While the instant communication that the Internet provides has spread access to information globally and helped disenfranchised groups to build and engage their communities, it also provides the means and opportunity for these same vulnerable populations to be harassed and exploited. Whether affecting women, youth, the elderly, or the LGBTQ community, the Internet (and mobile apps) provide a wealth of educational and social resources, but these groups also face higher than average rates of cyberbullying, online exploitation, and abuse.
For LGBTQ youth, cyberbullying is especially rampant and dangerous. According to the Gay, Lesbian, & Straight Education Network (GLSEN), more than 42% of LGBTQ youth reported being harassed or bullied online. This is three times higher than the average for non-LGBTQ youth whose reported numbers are at 15%. This 42% figure is significantly lower than the 82% of LGBTQ youth who have been harassed in person, but it is disquieting nonetheless. A full 27% of LGBTQ youth report feeling unsafe online.
Other statistics from this same study include the fact that 33% of LGBTQ youth report being sexually harassed online. This is more than three times higher rates than their non-LGBTQ counterparts.
Lack of acceptance
Besides facing higher rates of both online and in-person bullying and sexual harassment, according to NoBullying.com and Human Rights Watch, 42% of LGBTQ youth live in hostile environments where they are not accepted. 64% have reported feeling unsafe at school due to their sexual orientation. A much publicized statistic is that LGBTQ youth are more than two to three times more likely than their non-LGBTQ counterparts to attempt suicide. This number skyrockets to eight times more likely with a family that doesn’t accept them. The Center for Disease Control reports an association between suicidal behaviors and bullying, but they take care to clarify that doesn’t imply a direct causal relationship, “We know that most youth who are involved in bullying do NOT engage in suicide-related behavior. It is correct to say that involvement in bullying, along with other risk factors, increases the chance that a young person will engage in suicide-related behavior,” said the CDC in a report on the relationship between bullying and suicide.
Yet the risk remains that families will reject their LGBTQ children. According to Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays, or PFLAG, “Half of gay males experience a negative parental reaction when they come out and in 26% of those cases the youth was thrown out of the home. Studies indicate that between 25% and 50% of homeless youth are LGBTQ and on the streets because of their sexual orientation or gender identity. LGBTQ youth are overrepresented in foster care, juvenile detention, and among homeless youth.” With such high numbers and risks of being ostracized, it is no wonder that young people struggling with gender and sexuality issues seek the online world as a safe haven for their problems.
Internet can be a lifeline
LGBTQ youth use the Internet to connect with other LGBTQ youth, seek out information and resources on sexuality and gender identity, and express themselves in an honest way that they often don’t feel comfortable doing IRL (in real life). Consequently, as reported by GLSEN,
- LGBTQ youth spend, on average, 45 minutes more a day online than non-LGBTQ students.
- 73% of LGBTQ youth say they are more honest online than in the real world.
- 50% of LGBTQ youth reported having at least one close online friend, compared to only 19% of non-LGBTQ youth. LGBTQ youth rated their online friends as more supportive than non-LGBTQ youth rated their online friends.
- Two-thirds of LGBTQ youth (62%) had used the Internet to connect with other LGBTQ people in the past year.
- More than 1 in 10 LGBTQ youth (14%) said that they had first disclosed their LGBTQ identity to someone online.
- 1 in 4 LGBTQ youth (29%) said they were more out online than in person. More than half (52%) of LGBTQ youth who were not out to peers in person had used the Internet with other LGBTQ people.
Given this greater need for LGBTQ to use the Internet to connect with others so they can feel safe, honest, and part of an accepting community, it is not surprising but nonetheless disheartening that they face greater harassment than their non-LGBTQ counterparts. As the study, Preventing Bullying Through Science, Policy, and Practice demonstrates, “although the effects of being bullied on the brain are not yet fully understood, there are changes in the stress response systems and in the brain that are associated with increased risk for mental health problems, cognitive function, self-regulation, and other physical health problems.” We need to continue to look at bullying, which has been “long tolerated by many as a rite of passage into adulthood, is now recognized as a major and preventable public health problem, one that can have long-lasting consequences.”
Anonymity provides both protections and risks
Cyberbullying takes different forms for lesbians, gays, and trans youth, along with different forms whether it is on Snapchat, Instagram, Kik, Whatsapp, Facebook, Vine, After School, Yak, Grindr, Her, etc. While these social media and anonymous apps can provide a much needed space for LGBTQ youth to experiment and Interact without being publicly outed, they also provide a space for cyberbullying and other forms of abuse to happen, despite the best efforts of most of these companies to try to prevent and deal with cyberbullying.
As more and more social networking apps proliferate, the guidelines for remaining safe in a digital world are constantly changing as well. Cyberbullying takes different forms for lesbians, gays, and trans youth, along with sometimes slightly different forms depending on the app and the culture and norms associated with the app or service. While these social media and anonymous apps can provide a much needed space for LGBTQ youth to experiment and interact without being publicly outed, they also provide a space for cyberbullying and other forms of abuse to happen.
Anonymous apps allow people to find community and express their truths about whether they are concerned how coming out about their sexuality, gender identity, a stigmatized disease, or any number of issues where people worry they might be judged differently but still want to connect with others who share a similar struggle. Like with any social media, there are some basic means of protection one can use as is detailed in our Tips for Safe and Civil Use of Anonymous Apps, but it is important to know what the app knows about you, learn how to adjust the privacy settings and reporting tools for harassment, know who is contacting you, and understand that anonymity is not guaranteed.
For more resources, check out the Trevor Project, NoBullying.com, and the Gay, Lesbian, & Straight Education Network (GLSEN),
Tyler Snell is a ConnectSafely policy analyst who is working on an Internet safety guide for LGBTQ youth to be published by ConnectSafely.