Following the launch of Brook and Sussex University’s new report Digital Intimacies and LGBT+ Youth, 22 year-old RSHE educator Demi Whitnell reflects on their personal and professional experience of online spaces for the LGBT+ community and explains why we need to understand the importance of these space for young people.
Online platforms are a double-edged sword. One end is full of amazing content and people, a wealth of knowledge, and a profound sense community and support, whilst the other is sadly much darker, more isolating, more harmful and can provide a space for hatred to spawn without responsibility. This is something our young people are tackling daily.
Working with students on a day-to-day basis, alongside running a LGTQIA+ club and being involved in RSHE, I discuss and tackle LGBTQIA+ bullying and online safety weekly. What is surprising is that there seems to be little to no difference to the types of comments and attacks being made towards LGBTQIA+ individuals as were being made towards myself when I was at school – the language, the intensity, and the ‘protection’ of anonymity/hiding behind screens is still the same. The major differences are the platforms being used and what these platforms are doing/trying to do to create a safer space.
It is vital that platforms provide safe online communities that uphold specific morals and beliefs to protect our LGBTQIA+ young people, but also to let them spread their wings and navigate online spaces at their own pace.
However, it is not all doom and gloom. Online platforms have allowed a real sense of community to be felt, specifically by LGBTQIA+ folk. LGBTQIA+ content has never been more accessible and widespread, with a wealth of knowledge from educators, those within the community, and companies using online platforms to teach both allies and members of the community more about LGBTQIA+ identities, experiences, and history.
There is a true feeling of celebration in online spaces and for me the best example of that is the reclaiming and usage of the identity and word ‘queer.’ Online spaces have allowed for this ‘queer-world making’, which as a newly out non-binary queer is a truly heart-warming thing to see and be a part of. Having a ‘pronouns’ features added to online platforms was a huge moment for myself and many of us within the community.
It is key that as adults we understand the importance of social media, exploring the positives of community building, educating, communicating and opportunities.
Online platforms are currently hubs for celebrating diversity and for connecting people who align with one another –particularly LGBTQIA+ young people. Rather than teaching that is it a dangerous space (which yes, it can be), it is also important to see what young people see – a place that they fit in.
As adults and those who work closely with young people, we see red flags, risks, and protection from harm as our main purposes – which undoubtedly they are. However, I do believe that in some cases this can mean we are blinded to what young people see – a space to discover themselves, to learn in an environment in which they feel in control.
Whenever I discuss online safety to my own students, I discuss the positives and lead with what amazing things the internet can bring. There should not be any attempt at scaremongering – young individuals know a wealth about online spaces as they exist in them from a much younger age, typically they already know basic online safety skills, it is about instilling the importance of these skills and adapting them with the ever-changing online platforms, regulations and tactics of online harassment and bullying. Teaching them where to go if they need support, how to work the platform to their best advantage.
Importantly, it should not be the sole responsibility of young people to keep themselves safe, but also online platforms themselves.
Even to this day, I report online profiles of those who attack myself, my work, my friends, and the community and that is very telling of how universal these experiences can be. LGBTQIA+ adults, young adults, and youth all may need these skills to protect themselves online. However, often, online platforms do not uphold their promises of safety – with accounts I have blocked or restricted remaining active. As a content creator, my account in of itself is restricted, whilst accounts that promote hate and discrimination face little to no restriction. Many other sex-positive/LGBTQIA+ educators face similar experiences, many of whom lose their accounts. Platforms need to do more to ensure our online safety, particularly the online safety of LGBTQIA+ youth and follow through with safety measures such as deactivation of accounts.
I wouldn’t be the person I am today without the community I found online.
I wouldn’t be the educator I am today without the wealth of knowledge and opportunities online spaces have given me and I wouldn’t be a good teacher if I didn’t understand how vital these spaces are for young people’s development.
Read the summary of the Digital Intimacies and LGBT+ Youth report on Brook’s website.
Demi (they/she) is a qualified RSHE educator focusing primarily in LGBTQIA+ RSHE, gender, identity and sexuality – creating content online via S3xtheorywithdemi on Instagram, alongside working on a day-to-day basis with young individuals in local secondary-schools.