New research into the impact of online communities for LGBT+ young people

Following the launch of Brook and Sussex University’s new report Digital Intimacies and LGBT+ Youth, Brook’s Head of Policy and Public Affairs Lisa Hallgarten reflects on both the potential risks and the reported positives of social media and online communities for LGBT+ young people. 

After 18 months living with the pandemic – what would you erase if you could wave a magic wand? This question was asked at the end of an event on the impact of Covid 19 on the staff of a London hospital. Without pause a friend told me she’d make social media disappear. The pandemic, she said, should be the final nail in the coffin for platforms and algorithms that have harmed young people’s mental health, undermined public health messaging, facilitated bullying and driven polarisation in our communities.  

The Online Safety Bill making its way through Parliament is a response to longstanding concerns like these. It will introduce penalties for companies in breach of a range of new regulations designed to tackle the overreaching power and underreaching moral responsibility of global tech corporations. These issues have been well illustrated by the most recent whistleblowing from within the belly of the social media beast. Insiders at Facebook claim that the company has knowingly hosted hate speech and illegal activity, designed algorithms to prioritise profit over public safety, and pushed users to extremist groups in ways that are a betrayal democracy itself. 

We might ask whether a piece of legislation being passed in one small country can be expected to put this genie back in the bottle. But it’s also important to think about what the genie has done for us; what we value about our ability to connect online; how we use these platforms for good; and how we can ensure that those most in need of digital spaces can be enabled to use them enjoyably, constructively and safely. 

Brook and Sussex University’s new report Digital Intimacies and LGBT+ Youth looks at the ways in which LGBT+ young people engage in digital spaces. It describes the importance of digital practices for self-exploration; how young people find and foster connection in ways that support their wellbeing, and can create and celebrate queer community.  

LGBT+ young people report getting affirmation from their peers in spaces where they can be themselves. Unlike the heteronormative/cisnormative school environment where they may be treated as ‘the sole representative of an entire community’, online LGBT+ spaces may form around particular identities but also around totally different interests, such as fandom and gaming. They can be spaces where ‘being LGBT+ is the least interesting thing about them’. 

This is particularly important for young people who have experienced prejudice or lack of support in school, home or their communities. They are vital for those excluded from physical LGBT+ social and youth work spaces because of lack of local provision (especially in rural settings), because of their disability, roles as young carers, social anxiety or other barriers.  

The report finds that youth workers, teachers and parents are concerned that LGBT+ young people are more vulnerable than their peers because their isolation, need for affection, and greater reliance on digital methods for meeting others may expose them to greater risk than their non-LGBT+ peers. These risks are widely recognised by young people themselves, but often perceived as a normal part of everyday life. Young LGBT+ people may have specific vulnerabilities, but because of their experiences can also be more savvy, attuned to ways in which to protect their privacy, navigate the idiosyncrasies of different platforms and mitigate risks.  

This puts young LGBT+ people themselves in a good position to express what they require from tech companies to make digital spaces safer: whether it’s about sign up functions that better reflect their identities and protect their privacy; companies dealing more proactively with harassment and bullying; or addressing opaque algorithms and filters that block their access to important LGBT+ sites, platforms and information.  

Stronger regulation is clearly needed to address the most obvious harms and risks the laissez faire online environment has engendered, but regulation can be a blunt instrument fraught with potential unintended consequences. It is vital that tech companies and regulators  engage with communities of service users in a more nuanced conversation. Protection from harm should go hand in hand with accessibility, equity, visibility and inclusion. The best way to find out what young LGBT+ people themselves want and need is to ask them.  

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