Queer youth are increasingly using the Internet to find safe spaces & it’s putting them in danger

Girl using internet and watching out for parents
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LGBTQ+ youth face heightened risk online for sexual exploitation and grooming, according to a new report from Thorn. 

Founded in 2009, Thorn is a non-profit dedicated to building the tools and awareness to end child exploitation. Their new survey of over 1500 young people highlights the value queer youth place in online interactions and how queer youth perceive the risks and dangers of online harm.

“There is a perception of increased anonymity and privacy online, and that leads to exploration and more pushing of boundaries,” Melissa Stroebel, Thorn’s Head of Research and Insights, told LGBTQ Nation.

Online platforms, such as Instagram or Twitter, give queer youth a space to be their true selves, with more than three out of four queer youth saying they view their online communities as essential to their lives. These spaces often act as a readily-available substitute for the types of relationships and safe spaces these youth struggle to find offline.

But this over-reliance on online platforms gives rise to bad actors who seek to manipulate and extort queer youth. 

1 in 5 LGBTQ+ teens have received a request for nudes and are almost 2 times more likely to indicate prior experience of unwanted or potentially risky encounters online than non-LGBTQ+ participants. LGBTQ+ minors were almost twice as likely to report sharing their own nude photos or videos, reporting higher rates of experiences with sexually-explicit images. 

“While there might not be an immediate physical threat in an online interaction, there is an opportunity for manipulation,” said Stroebel. Despite a “physical distance” that gives online users a sense of perceived safety, the risk is still very real for queer youth. 

However, this increased risk for grooming is viewed as ‘normal’ among queer youth, with 91% viewing this as at least somewhat common.

To explain why that is, Stroebel shared what one queer young person told Thorn: “Everyone is a stranger at some point.”

Stroebel said that for youth, talking to strangers online is “just the start of the process” to potentially meaningful relationships or exploration even as queer youth understand the risks associated. 

Since kids are well aware of the realities of online interactions, Stroebel says the best way to move forward is to share the voices of queer youth to raise awareness. 

“Some of the risk we see for queer youth is because they have greater barriers to disclosure,” Stroebel said. “They feel they will be blamed, shamed, in some parts because of who they are.”

Parents and caregivers need to “evolve” the sex talk to include the threats of online platforms, such as grooming and sextortion, rather than leave youth to find out those dangers for themselves. Despite it being an all-around awkward conversation, straying away from those topics won’t “shelter” kids, Stroebel says. It serves as a disservice. 

Stroebel encourages parents to have these conversations with their young ones in an “age-appropriate fashion,” so they’re prepared by the time they start going online.

A recent LGBTQ user safety report from GLAAD expands on the risk that queer youth face online, revealing that all five major social media platforms – Facebook, Instagram, TikTok, YouTube and Twitter – received low and failing scores when it comes to safety.

The report found that these platforms fail to implement proper protections against online hate speech and allows misinformation to continue spreading, further harming queer users. Further, many of these lack specific policies to protect LGBTQ+ users and have inadequate content moderation. 

“Dehumanizing anti-LGBTQ content on social media such as misinformation and hate have an outsized impact on real world violence and harmful anti-LGBTQ legislation, but social media platforms too often fail at enforcing their own policies regarding such content,” said GLAAD President and CEO, Sarah Kate Ellis, in a statement. “Especially as many of the companies behind these platforms recognize Pride month, they should recognize their roles in creating a dangerous environment for LGBTQ Americans and urgently take meaningful action.”

By amplifying the voices of queer youth and increasing the data available, Stroebel calls on everyone— not just social media companies— to ground policies in what young people need to be safe and thrive. 

“This is not the exclusive responsibility of caregivers, educators, politicians or tech companies, it’s all of us,” said Stroebel. “The entire community needs to do a better job of showing up for young people.”

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