Last month saw the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD) release its first-ever Social Media Safety Index. As CEO Sarah Kate Ellis notes in the report’s press release, the original intention of the research was to grade five of the most popular social media platforms on safety and inclusion for queer people. When researchers realized their criteria would lead to every platform receiving a failing grade, they reworked the results into more of an industry report with recommendations for improvement.
The report is a call-to-arms to big tech, a public accountability maneuver backed by data. It’s a tried-and-true formula for GLAAD, having created similar structures for journalism and television, and historically it works — particularly when GLAAD measures year over year change.
My worry is that the tagline “no social media platform is safe for queer people” will be what sticks and gets decontextualized from all of this. Social media is unsafe, sure, and there’s the added side effect that too much screen time can change our brains.
But for queer people, particularly young people, apps and screen time are lifelines. They were my lifeline. Social media platforms and websites are where we find ourselves and learn about who we actually are in a world that otherwise censors or stereotypes our day-to-day lives.
I Had a Secret No One Could Know
Flashback: It’s the year 2001. Queer As Folk and The L-Word are doing a one-two punch on Showtime, and incognito browser windows didn’t exist yet. I’m 13 and ridiculously gay — but no one knows it yet.
Things were dark if I’m being honest. Growing up in the rural midwest, I never saw queer people or interacted with queer culture. By the time I left for college in 2005, the only openly queer people I had ever encountered in person were my piano teacher and the couple who owned the local coffee shop. Dial-up internet was slow — you try downloading pornographic images on a modem back then, it took hours — and social media meant Livejournal and MySpace. Gay sex was still synonymous with AIDS (Or at least that’s how it was presented to me growing up), and when you’re a teenager and impressionable it’s easy to let the self-loathing thoughts you repeat to yourself become your reality.
The happy communities of queer people living fabulous lives in fabulous cities felt impossibly far away. I grew up in a low-income household; the idea of ending up in a big city was too intimidating, too expensive, and I was raised to believe cities were scary. Like many queer millennials, I wear my self-flagellation like a badge of honor, a martyrdom from which I’ve shaped my identity. The Velvet Rage helped me identify some of these overcompensation triggers as a gay man.
If 14-year-old Nick existed in 2021, his snowballing self-loathing would have encountered a speed bump, and that speed bump is Instagram. Sure, he’d have other challenges that today’s youth have, but the idea that there was no one in the world like him wouldn’t have been able to take hold. The beauty of social media, warts and all, is that it gives you access to a world of people just like you if you know where to find them.
Rethinking Screen Time for Queer Communities
In calculating recommended screen time for toddlers, the American Psychological Association makes an exception for video calls because the well-being benefits outweigh the cons. A systematic review of social media research published in the Journal Of Mental Health found that the verdict on social media is still hazy. And a study on transgender and non-binary youth wellness found that online communities have a positive impact on well-being and feelings of belonging.
This is good news because queer people are online way more often than non-queer people anyway. A Pew Research Center survey of LGB users found far higher adoption of (and satisfaction with!) dating apps than their heterosexual counterparts.
Moreover, an article published last year in the journal Psychological Inquiry calls out the elephant in the room: Screen time is inherently multilayered and shapes our identity, whether we want it to or not. Entitled Beyond Screen Time: Identity Development in the Digital Age, the piece notes that before we can even measure how screen time truly impacts identity, we need an effective scale or rubric for doing so, and we don’t have that yet.
In Beyond Screen Time the researchers note that “adolescents are currently living in a hybrid reality that links digital spaces to offline contexts. It is from this “hybrid reality” that young people will form their identities and sense of self.
For queer people, though… a hybrid reality is already here. Yes, social media platforms can be hazardous, and there are certainly issues to address. But when it comes to discovering who you are, the internet can be a haven for finding yourself.
We've still got a long way to go before the internet is safe, and we may never completely get there. The internet is the queer playground I wish I had when I was young, and it’s a landscape I’m willing to navigate in order to discover communities I love and the company I want to keep.
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