Finding online spaces for ‘people like me’ during COVID-19: LGBTQIA+ young people, social media platforms, bullying and violence

Dr Benjamin Hanckel and Dr Shiva Chandra - Western Sydney University – March 18, 2021

The Sydney Mardi Gras parade began in 1978 as a protest against the marginalisation and discrimination faced by sexuality and gender diverse people. At the time, the police response was violent and brutal, with many being arrested and physically injured. In Australian society today, LGBTQIA+ young people still experience homophobia, biphobia and transphobia. On this National Day of Action against Bullying and Violence, this is a timely reminder that such actions still exist. However, like the Mardi Gras, it is also an important reminder that LGBTQIA+ people are more than victims of this violence, and, as new research shows, are actively carving out positive experiences for themselves on social media platforms.

For LGBTIQA+ people bullying and violence often comes from a variety of places – schools, peers, online spaces, family, and media representations. At the beginning of the pandemic, for instance, concerns were raised about the negative impact lockdowns could have on LGBTQIA+ young people. There were worries that queer people would have to move back in with homophobic or transphobic family members, and this would have negative impacts on their wellbeing. But what were queer young people actually doing, and where did social media platforms fit into their lives during this tumultuous time?

“…just the education thing [on social media]. I think the education thing was massive for me, especially in COVID like it did a lot for me with the polyamorous thing. It did a lot for me for the non-binary thing. That’s only a thing that’s been for me like a thing within the last twelve months. But I’ve been thinking of my whole life.” – Skyler

Our study wanted to know more. Funded through a foundational gift from Facebook and supplementary funding from Western Sydney University, we examined queer young people’s experiences of using social media platforms during the COVID-19 pandemic. We found that during the pandemic young LGBTQIA+ people’s social media use went up and they had strategies in place that allowed them to thrive on social media platforms, and find ‘people like me’.

We spoke to 65 LGBTQIA+ individuals around Australia, across 21 interviews and 10 focus groups. Our participants were from urban, rural and regional Australia of various ethnicities, and diverse genders and sexualities, including young people who identified as gay, lesbian, bisexual, asexual, pansexual and demisexual, with various gender identities, such as cis male/female, intersex, non-binary, trans, gender-fluid, agender and questioning.

The study found young people navigated online platforms during COVID-19 lockdowns to ensure their wellbeing. Common tactics included: blocking people, changing their privacy settings on Facebook, and/or creating multiple accounts on Instagram. Respondents would block certain people if they were negative about their gender or sexuality, or if they did not want them to find out about their gender or sexuality. At other times, they created multiple profiles, so that they could engage with queer content without being outed or discovered.  This meant that they could view more diverse content in safe(r) ways, though, as many indicated they would like to see more diverse queer representations, and were keen to see more positive portrayals of queer people, who they could be like.

“Um, I’ve kind of taken to having, having two accounts on a lot like a lot of social media so, for example, on Instagram, I have um, an account where I follow, like a lot of the people I know at school […] other people I meet who I want to connect with and then I have another one where it’s like only people online would know me. […] I don’t put like any personal information out, it’s unlikely to come back to me which makes it easier. […] I follow accounts which are like based around LGBT stuff […] I kind of enjoy doing that sometimes to talk to people woh might be having similar experiences.” – Rachel 

 

 

 

This is, as Hanckel and colleagues have written about elsewhere, a form of ‘curation’. As social media use increased during the pandemic, identity exploration went up alongside this careful curation to block out negative comments, and include positive relatable experiences from people all over the world. That is to say, for many of our respondents COVID-19 – a time of greater internet use – was a point in time in which to spend exploring and (re)creating their queer identities. For one respondent, for instance, spending more time at home allowed them to experiment with their physical appearance in a way they had not been able to do previously.

Such curation strategies are increasingly being supported by community organisations in the form of instructional resources, and whilst they have not yet been evaluated, they offer the potential to support young people where they are, and give them tools to build on their existing capabilities. Investment in such resources that build on existing digital literacies and support young people where they are is critical.

It is perhaps not surprising then that LGBTQIA+ young people also reported negative experiences on social media platforms, such as hateful comments on posts. However, importantly they also indicated being able to deal with these situations and negative individuals in a way that ensured their own wellbeing. That is to say, as opposed to simply being victims of bullying, they were active in managing social media profiles and were able to take measures to protect themselves from online hate and abuse. Sometimes this meant blocking, but at other times young people explained that they would try and educate others on sexuality and gender diversity as well. We had, for instance, one respondent explain to us that he would actively respond to negative comments in order to teach people about queerness in the comments section on YouTube, whilst another person explained that they would actively respond to comments on TikTok as a way to also educate others.

Evident here is how queer young people are taking the lead and changing the situation, displaying a sense of agency, and educating others; they are not just mere victims of online bullying but are actually working to stamp it out. In other words, bullying persists for LGBTQIA+ young people globally, however social media platforms play a critical role in their lives – they remain spaces which they actively curate, and bring them comfort, community and joy, even though they may experience negativity at times. Platforms are urged to build on existing measures in their allyship to support these queer young people where they are.

Illustrations by Brendan Chippendale of @chippendaleportraits. The art was commissioned for use in this project.

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