I’ve Never Been Alone on the Internet: Queer Adolescent Mental Health Online in Light of COVID-19
The first thing I do in the morning, as I open my eyes, weary from lack of sleep, is check my social apps, and message my online friends. The blue light from my iPhone nearly blinds me, but it’s essential that I wake up every morning and say “good morning 😺” and see it in return. As a queer kid growing up through the rise of internet forums, from AIM chatrooms, to Neopets roleplay forums, to Discord Servers, I have always found that there was a community of people like me out there.
Mental Health for queer individuals is increasingly overlooked in their formative teenage years, due to fear of coming out and lack of resources. So, we look towards the internet, for spaces where people are like us and understand our experience. However, legislators and skeptics claim that the internet is contributing to diminishing mental health and loneliness. If we have learned anything during the COVID-19 pandemic, it is that virtual connections can be just as meaningful as in-person ones, and we must work to legitimize online spaces as essential to queer mental health support.
During the recent shutdowns surrounding the pandemic, individuals looked towards the internet for entertainment and social interaction and began to see the value. Pamela Rutledge, director of the Media Psychology Research Center said in an interview with Vox, “The ability to connect via so many different platforms not only helps alleviate feelings of isolation but increases the sense of psychological comfort . . . It makes people feel less lonely and less fearful to know they aren’t dealing with this alone.”
Online video games communities such as Twitch and Youtube Streaming close to doubled in 2020. These communities revolve entirely around users finding community from their favorite videogames and gamers, creating a social space in something comforting. The benefit of online communities became clear, even if it wasn’t their ideal, the steady increase and viewership of users meant that those who were not using the internet before for these communities returned because they identified one. This, of course, was not a new discovery to queer people, as we have always migrated to community gathering spaces.
According to the Gay Lesbian Straight Education Network (GLSEN), Out Online Report, More than half (52%) of LGBT youth who were not out to peers in person had used the Internet with other LGBT people. Being able to disclose your sexuality without it drastically affecting your “real” or IRL life, is crucial. Just being able to type what you are can be incredibly liberating. And as the Out Online Report also finds, where two-thirds of LGBT youth (62%) use the internet to connect with LGBT people, coming out is just where it begins. The community of shared experiences just like the pandemic gamers on Twitch and YouTube have found, creates a sense of belonging when the outside world is not safe.
Two-thirds of LGBT youth (62%) use the internet to connect with LGBT people.
There are legitimate concerns with the adverse affects of social media on mental health and it is not without mentioning the negatives for queer and non-queer people alike. For example, an increasing concern is the false reality, it can create. A study in the Journal of Abnormal Psychology found that women and young girls were increasingly susceptible to comparing themselves to unattainable and often edited online standards.
However, to combat this effect, a NY Times Op-Ed, suggests drastically changing the way adolescents access social media and the internet, not taking into account the adolescents who would be left stranded. When 1% of 9–10-year-olds, can identify as gay or transgender. Rather than set age limits on platforms, restrict phone usage, or cutting off access altogether, we should seek equitable solutions.
If iPad kids have shown us anything: children and adolescents know how to use mobile devices and the internet, so we should meet them where they are! The Trevor Project created an online space for 13–24-year-olds called TrevorSpace. I suggest, we go further and create spaces for youth online where they are. Not only should we have TrevorSpace, but queer support group sanctioned Discord servers, TikTok communities, Instagram and Twitter Spaces, and more! As a young person on the internet, finding these communities took a lot of googling and corners of the internet I should not have been on — and this would curb that.
In the past 2 years, on a national and global level, we have learned that whether we like it or not, you’re never alone if you have the internet. For queer people, the COVID-19 shone a light on what we already knew, but also threatens access to the generations to come. We must take these learnings and resolve the disparities before blanketly applying change.