Social media can hurt kids. For many 2SLGBTQ+ youth, it’s a lifeline.

The internet can be a scary place. For queer kids, it’s sometimes the only safe place they have.

Shelley Craig
A teenager with short black hair, sunglasses, a buttoned up t-shirt and checkered purse staring at their phone. Pictured against an orange wall.
A teenager with short black hair, sunglasses, a buttoned up t-shirt and checkered purse staring at their phone. Pictured against an orange wall.
(Photograph by iStock)

I’ve been a social worker for two decades, and my work mainly focuses on 2SLGBTQ+ youth. I’ve zeroed in on this group, partly because of the unique risks they face and partly because I’m a member of the community myself. I grew up in a small town where I knew no other queer people, so I can relate to how important it is to feel supported by a community—and how the absence of one can be devastating. Back in the early 2000s, there wasn’t a lot of specialized care available for young people like me, and I wanted to help provide it. I became curious about the community-building potential of social media in particular, and about 13 years ago, I ran my first study in my lab at the University of Toronto (called INQYR) on how 2SLGBTQ+ youth use the internet. The results were transformative.

In the academic community, researchers tend to be preoccupied by the issue of cyberbullying, or how social media can harm. Inappropriate content, online predators, invasions of privacy, screen addiction—all of these concerns come up when we talk about the internet. Naturally, parents and caregivers want to protect kids from these dangers. But framing the conversation about social media solely around its downsides overshadows its value for kids whose identities and experiences might not always fit neatly into our perceptions. Plenty of research, including mine, now shows that 2SLGBTQ+ youth use social media as a way to develop their identities and create relationships. Others use it to learn coping skills that help them deal with a world that can be fraught with rejection.

In the course of my studies, I saw over and over again that 2SLGBTQ+ youth seemed to be faring better in their day-to-day lives specifically because of their online activity, even when they were being mistreated at school or at home. Take Tav, a 14-year-old bisexual, non-binary teen, who told us during a 2020 study, “Online, I’ve found friends that accept me for me. They want to talk about what my life is like in Toronto, and how I deal with problems at school. That’s not something I have at home yet.”

Steph, another study participant, viewed their online connections as a form of resistance. “As a 2SLGBTQ+ youth, I feel like my soul and my body are always under attack. Yet, online, I can speak out against the fact that people are burning gay flags and provide advice to kids who are dealing with the same stress I am.” I’ve heard queer youth describe their online friendships using words like  “home” and “family,” and say these corners of the internet “kept them alive.” Rates of mental-health issues were very high, and still are too high, among queer youth, especially when compared to their straight and cisgender peers: according to a 2022 study by the Trevor Project, 73 per cent of 2SLGBTQ+ youth experience symptoms of anxiety, 58 per cent deal with depression and 45 per cent have seriously considered suicide in the past year. Not only did having a robust online community seem to have a positive effect on their wellbeing, it actually reduced their risk of suicide in some cases. It’s not an exaggeration to say that social media is saving these kids’ lives.

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The connection that queer kids derive from the internet is especially important now, a time when 2SLGBTQ+ communities face unprecedented challenges, even in Canada. Gay marriage has been legal here for almost 20 years, and in 2017, gender identity and expression were included in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms for the first time. But progress isn’t linear: in 2021, Statistics Canada reported a 64 per cent increase in hate crimes toward members of the 2SLGBTQ+ community. School districts across Canada outright refuse to fly Pride flags. The federal government has responded by funding extra security at Pride parades, once-celebratory sanctuaries for queer people that are now under threat. South of the border, the Human Rights Campaign just declared a state of emergency for 2SLGBTQ+ Americans, marking the first time the organization has made this kind of warning in its 40-year history. For queer youth, this backlash is just a more public version of the harassment many experience in school and at home every day and reinforce that the offline world isn’t safe for them.

So where exactly do these youth find refuge online? At the moment, my research focuses on all the usual social platforms—Tumblr is still around!—but, more and more, we’re looking at the phenomenon of “gayming.” It’s essentially the emergence of 2SLGBTQ+ youth in gaming spaces—which can sometimes be hotbeds of misogyny—who build community around queer streamers. Twitch, in particular, is huge. Canadian streamers Willow and EspeSymone are massively popular with queer kids, who form friendships in the comments section. On TikTok, entire fan groups have formed around young drag queens like Cherry West or twins (and Drag Race stars) Sugar and Spice, whose live streams may involve them chatting their way through makeup tutorials and peppering in random facts about their lives. 

On Instagram, 2SLGBTQ+ youth have built book clubs centred on canonical queer literature or online movie clubs that screen films over Zoom. YouTube is also a popular destination among transgender youth. I’ve had some young trans clients bring up YouTube clips in clinical sessions, whether it’s footage of someone binding their chest or talking about transitioning more broadly. They’ll say, “Can I show you something?” and use these videos as a tool to educate me, their therapist, on what they need. Sometimes, I suggest they also show them to their parents or caregivers to help them understand what they’re going through.

In the mental-health community, we see the profound difference just one supportive person can make in the life of a queer child. We’re learning that Discords and Twitch streams and Instagram book clubs function in much the same way. Not only that, but teens are now producing content themselves—they’re not just passive consumers in these online environments. The internet has no shortage of homophobic and transphobic content, but social platforms also offer queer kids plenty of agency to fight back. Unlike the school bullies they may not be able to outrun, 2SLGBTQ+ youth have ways to protect themselves online. They can manage negative interactions by reporting and blocking trolls, defending a friend in the comments, updating their privacy settings and curating a profile that reflects how they want to be perceived. Even the algorithm can have a protective effect. As much as we complain about it paying too much attention to our preferences, for marginalized youth, it can provide a consistent form of validation. They don’t have to sort through an endless sea of information to find themselves, which can help them feel much less alone.

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For all of its benefits, however, the internet is not a replacement for safe offline communities or welcoming families. I’ve often heard from caregivers who feel that the best way to protect their children is to restrict their internet use. A lot of them are surprised when, instead, I suggest that they talk to their kids about where they’re going online, what they’re looking at and who they’re chatting with. (You could say this is more of a harm-reduction approach to technology use). For teens, establishing one’s own identity is a normal phase of development; this now includes online identities. The advice I give to parents is not to panic. Instead, I suggest they stay curious and say, “Tell me a bit about the platform you’re on,” or “I just learned about this TikTok thing! Can you show me a couple of the videos you like? I want to know what you’re interested in.” Sharing internet content can actually lead into conversations that are affirming and strengthen relationships. 

This holds true in my work as well: we’ve found that many 2SLGBTQ+ youth are much more likely to access therapy online than in person. So these days, I’m exploring ways to integrate social media into client sessions. For example, I worked with a young client who was experiencing depression related to their pansexuality.  I asked them to come to our next session with five examples of pansexual content creators so I could understand a bit more about their lives and influences and feel more comfortable. I’m trying to speak their language, and so far, many teens have said these efforts make them feel hopeful.

As much as our widespread reliance on technology has led to feelings of isolation for some, scores of queer kids have found online spaces to be antidotes to marginalization, no matter the platform. In one of my recent studies, I analyzed videos in which queer youth described the impact of their online engagement on their mental health. Many shared that their internet explorations led them to making lifelong friends and even mentoring other queer youth in need of community. I don’t know many adults who support each other so deeply. I hope these findings can serve as inspiration for adults—queer and otherwise—to channel a similar ferocity into protecting the lives of queer kids offline. Ideally, one day, we won’t need the phrase “safe spaces” at all. 

Shelley Craig is a professor at the Factor-Inwentash Faculty of Social Work at the University of Toronto and holds the Canada Research Chair in Sexual and Gender Minority Youth.