What do we know about how LGBT youth use the Internet?
Over the past several years IMPACT lab members have been analyzing data from several studies of how same-sex attracted youth use the Internet. What have we learned?
1. Same-sex attracted youth are largely similar to their heterosexual peers in terms of how they use the Internet. Sometimes we become so involved in identifying the ways that same-sex attracted youth are unique that we forget that they have a lot in common with their heterosexual peers. This is an important point that was first made by development psychologists and researchers Ritch Savin Williams and Lisa Diamond. In our studies, same-sex attracted youth reported using social networking websites, watching videos and movies and listened to music online on average several times a week. They also read or created blogs, chatted in chat rooms or on forums, and looked up information for school fairly often.
2. Same-sex attracted youth use the Internet in strategic ways. Our research suggests that same-sex attracted youth also use the Internet for information, support, and connection relating to their LGBT status. For example, some youth look up information on safe sex practices and healthy romantic relationship skills. Others turn to the Internet for advice on topics such as how to “come out” to parents, or for information on offline support services such as HIV/STI testing or support groups. Some youth in our studies explained how they felt supported by youth that met online who were going through similar experiences, particularly when they were first exploring their attractions. Typically, youth turned to the Internet a handful of times during the course of adolescent development in order to make up for deficits in their offline environments. Many discussed using strategies to protect their safety and verify the accuracy of online information.
3. The Internet functions similarly to other settings where youth spend their time. Much of the identity exploration that occurs online is similar to what has historically happened offline. Often youth find ways to tailor their Internet use and online social media presence to fit their unique personality and interests and use the Internet to strengthen offline friendships. However, negative offline interactions can find their way online, and research suggests that same sex attracted youth may be at higher risk for online harassment. Those with unsupportive family and peers may also lack an outlet to discuss problems encountered online.
4. The Internet is a resource in progress. Many organizations are now beginning to post resources online, which will increase the amount of information available. However, researchers are less sure about how to intervene to improve the quality of online communications. For example, while the anonymity of the Internet was cited as helpful to youth who were initially hesitant to explore or identify with a LGBT identity offline, others discussed feeling too disconnected or suspicious to form meaningful connections. Here at IMPACT we continue to build our own website and online interventions in ways that best serve the diverse needs of same-sex attracted youth. In order to do so, we continue to consult the experts- LGBT youth themselves!
*This post was written by IMPACT graduate student Laura Kuper.