The internet remains a place LGBTQ+ youth seek refuge to understand their identity, but research from the Human Rights Campaign Foundation increasingly shows queer kids at risk of vicious cyberbullying.
Researchers found 96 percent of queer youth end up exposed to offensive and hurtful anti-LGBTQ+ content. Nearly half, 49 percent, of trans and non-binary youth experienced cyberbullying attacking them based on their gender identity in the last year.
That’s all according to HRC’s 2023 LGBTQ+ Youth Report. Leaders behind the research say that shows a greater need to keep safe spaces online, and better avenues for victimized individuals to seek help and assistance with bullying online.
“Teachers and educators in schools can really help counter that by making schools safe places for youth to show up authentically and for queer families to show up authentically,” said Charleigh Flohr, HRC’s senior research manager.
The report finds more than 74 percent of LGBTQ+ youth and 77 percent of trans and gender-expansive youth say they don’t feel comfortable reporting cyberbullying or online hate speech to an educator and even more doubt an educator could actually help.
Separate research by HRC found a 406 percent increase in the use of terms like “groomer” and “pedophile” in social media taunts in the months after the Florida “don’t say gay” law was passed and imitated in other states. Flohr said the law effectively criminalizes teachers even acknowledging queer people exist. As that occurs, the HRC report found fewer students seeking support from teachers and administrators.
“And we’re seeing higher levels of cyberbullying on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity because of these laws being passed,” she said, “and the cultural arguments being put forward that really dehumanize people are basically giving a free pass online to bullying.”
At the same time, the research shows the internet remains an important resource for youth.
More than 95 percent of transgender and gender-expansive youth use the internet to better understand queer identities, and more than 83 percent turned online for information about sexual health relevant to their identity. More than 68 percent of LGBTQ+ youth participate in online communities to engage with LGBTQ+ individuals in their age group, a number that spikes above 73 percent when looking only at trans youth and gender minorities.
Some youth don’t feel safe on the internet. More than 15 percent of LGBTQ+ youth and almost 17 percent of trans and non-binary kids say they feel unsafe online. And many don’t see anywhere to turn about it. Some 18 percent of LGBTQ+ kids don’t know how to report cyberbullying and hate speech to social media platforms. Some 66 percent don’t believe the platform would take any action regardless.
There’s some reason for that, as 60 percent of Twitter users reported an increase in abuse and hateful rhetoric on that platform since Elon Musk purchased the platform last year. That’s even as researchers see relatively innocuous content, such as images of two women holding hands, facing online censorship because anti-LGBTQ+ groups deem it offensive.
While more than 93 percent of LGBTQ+ youth say they have received some guidance from adults on dealing with hate and bullying online, Flohr said there’s a lot of room for improvement.
“Social media and tech companies absolutely have a responsibility here,” Flohr said. “These companies have to take responsibility to get this right. And a lot of the arguments that are put forward as to why research should censor virtually anything about LGBTQ people and online content really comes from a place of stigma and hate.”