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Twice as Many LGBTQ+ Teens Find Affirmation Online as at Home

If you or anyone you know is struggling with thoughts of self-harm or suicide, help is available. Call or text 988 to reach the confidential National Suicide Prevention Lifeline or check out these resources from the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.

Educators and parents alike have been ringing alarm bells over social media as an enabler of cyberbullying, fights, and unhealthy comparisons with peers for teens.

Today’s kids, as the common critique goes, spend too much time in toxic online spaces at the cost of healthier in-person interactions with family and peers.

But for LGBTQ+ teens, that assessment doesn’t necessarily hold true, according to a newly released survey of 13- to 17-year-olds.

Sixty-seven percent of LGBTQ+ teens say they have found affirming spaces and communities online, compared with 46 percent who said the same of their school and 31 percent who said so about their home, in the Trevor Project’s 6th annual survey on the mental health of LGBTQ+ young people.

The Trevor Project is a nonprofit organization that focuses on suicide prevention among LGBTQ+ youth, and it polled nearly 20,000 LGBTQ+ young people in the United States for its most recent survey, including 9,070 13- through 17-year-olds, from September through December 2023.

Although it might sound counterintuitive, especially considering that 35 percent of LGBTQ+ teens in the survey said they had been cyberbullied, social media and other online spaces can provide LGBTQ+ teens with a vital sense of belonging, said Casey Pick, the Trevor Project’s director of law and policy.

“The internet can provide a way for LGBTQ+ young people who feel isolated to connect with their peers, to see themselves represented in affirming content, or to express themselves and explore their own identities in ways that it can be more difficult to do at school or home,” she said in a statement to Education Week.

LGBTQ+ teens can also find educational and mental health resources tailored to their sexual and gender identities to which they may not otherwise have access, Pick said.

That doesn’t mean that LGBTQ+ youth’s experiences with social media are all rosy—it can still be a place where they experience cyberbullying, and that contributes to anxiety and eating disorders, Pick said. Surveys by the Trevor Project have found that strong majorities of LGBTQ+ youth say social media has both positively and negatively impacted their well-being.

The Trevor Project has also found that having access to affirming spaces is important for LGBTQ+ teens’ mental health and safety. LGBTQ+ youth who said in the most recent survey that they have access to affirming spaces reported lower rates of suicide attempts than those who said they didn’t. That was especially true for young people who said they attended affirming schools.

What qualities make a school affirming? They are actions, policies, and spaces that support and protect LGBTQ+ students. Those can include enumerated anti-bullying policies that make clear that anti-LGBTQ+ harassment isn’t tolerated, the availability of gender-neutral bathrooms, and GSA clubs, or Gender-Sexualities Alliances.

These can be powerful tools for supporting LGBTQ+ youth’s mental health. Esmée Silverman, a college student who last fall shared their story about coming out as transgender in high school with Education Week, credited their GSA club with saving their life.

“It gave me solidarity, gave me confidence, and made me feel like I had other people I could talk to, relate to,” they said. “That’s a really important thing to have when you’re struggling, and you feel overwhelmed. I was thinking of suicide constantly during my freshman year of high school, and I was not alone in that thought—I know plenty of queer and trans youth who have thought about suicide because of all of this stuff. They think it’s easier than coming out.”

LGBTQ+ teens struggle with poor mental health, bullying

Poor mental health remains an area of high concern among LGBTQ+ youth.

Most alarming, the survey found that 46 percent of LGBTQ+ 13- to 17-year-olds said they had seriously considered attempting suicide, and 16 percent had attempted it in the past year. That tracks closely with the most recent data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Youth Risk Behavior Survey.

Teens who said they were bullied in the Trevor Project survey were significantly more likely to say they had attempted suicide, and nearly half of LGBTQ+ teens say they have been bullied in the past year. Among those who had been bullied, 18 percent said they had considered suicide compared with 6 percent who said they had not been bullied.

That rate of bullying is substantially higher than what other surveys have found among the general adolescent population. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, for example, nearly 1 in 5 middle and high school students said they had been bullied in the 2021-22 school year, the most recent year for which data are available.

Majorities of LGBTQ+ teens said in the Trevor Project survey that they had experienced symptoms of anxiety and depression in the past year as well, 67 and 57 percent respectively.

And the political climate continues to be a drag on LGBTQ+ youth mental health, with most survey respondents saying it hurts their well-being.

There has been a wave of state laws passed in recent years related to LGBTQ+ issues, including bans on transgender students’ participation in sports teams that align with their gender identity, restrictions on the discussion of LGBTQ+ issues in classrooms, and policies that allow teachers not to use students’ pronouns if they don’t align with their sex assigned at birth and require that schools notify parents when their children seek to use such pronouns at school.

At the same time, a handful of states, including Arkansas, Florida, and Utah, have passed laws placing substantial restrictions on minors’ social media use, which may have unintended negative consequences for LGBTQ+ youth, Pick said. (To be sure, the fate of these laws is unclear as they’re being challenged in court.)

“Many lawmakers’ intentions to make the internet safer are good, and we agree with that goal,” she said. “However, sometimes, they may not realize that certain policies or methods may actually cause harm to LGBTQ+ young people, threaten their access to a potential lifeline, or could be weaponized by anti-LGBTQ forces.”

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