When I first discovered YouTube in the early 2000s, I was immediately drawn to videos of my peers coming out on social media. As a closeted teenager, I spent many evenings alone in my bedroom analyzing how my favorite online personalities opened up about their identities to their followers. I admired their vulnerability and bravery, so after much research and self-reflection, I decided to add my voice to the masses.
“I’m queer, too!” I wrote in the comment sections of Troye Sivan's coming-out video in 2012. I continued to process my identity by writing fan-fiction on Tumblr, listening to playlists on Myspace, and penning personal essays on LiveJournal. I also relied on the web to answer the many lingering questions I still had about my body. The internet became a trusted friend, a resource where I could learn more about myself and the world around me.
For queer youth today, these spaces still hold great importance. According to a 2019 study of 1,011 teenagers by VSCO Press, 59% of Generation Z (individuals between the ages of 14-24) believe that social media has enabled them to be more open about who they are in real life. Given that, as of 2016, less than half of Gen Z identifies as “exclusively heterosexual," internet safe spaces are still fundamental in shaping adolescents' sense of self.
But despite research that highlights the importance of fostering and nurturing these spaces, social media platforms are deprioritizing their queer users.
For many college-aged teenagers, social media can offer a unique opportunity for self-exploration and autonomy. “I am only out on the internet,” Maya, 19, tells me over FaceTime from her college dorm in New York. To her 79,891 TikTok followers, she is a proud member of the LGBTQ+ community. But to her parents, she remains closeted. “TikTok is my favorite platform because my parents don’t know how to use it," she says. "On Instagram, they follow me. But TikTok feels like my place. In even just one scroll, I can easily scroll through so many amazing and dynamic queer stories. It inspires me.”
Curious about whether or not Maya's words resonate with other members of Gen Z, I reached out to more college students from all across the country about the relationship between social media and their sexuality. The majority of participants shared that TikTok is the platform on which they feel they can be their most authentic selves, followed by Snapchat, Instagram, YouTube, and Tumblr. The main appeal of TikTok? Their parents don't use it.
Harry, 19, calls me from their university's library in Massachusetts. “My parents don't use my correct pronouns, so I don't talk about [my identity] to them anymore," they tell me. Tess, 19, echoes Harry's sentiments all the way from Vermont. “I love Snapchat, Tumblr, and YouTube the most because there are so many amazing queer communities on [these platforms]." All six respondents call attention to the uniquely self-accepting queer communities that have used these apps as a place to congregate and connect. "The internet can serve as the only safe space for queer and questioning youth to find resources, find community, or find themselves," Clare Kenny, Director of Youth Engagement at GLAAD, an American LGBTQ+ media organization, tells me. These spaces are crucial for self-discovery and adolescent development.
Connection is not the only goal — According to a 2015 report by GLSEN, the leading American education organization working to create safe schools for all students, finds that only 19% of U.S. secondary schools require sex education to be LGBTQ+ inclusive. So, once again, queer and questioning teens are turning to social media in order to ask and answer questions about their bodies. "I only knew how to have sex with a girl for the first time because of the internet," Maya tells me. "Queer internet spaces are where I go for everything. I didn't learn about queer sex in high school and my parents certainly aren't going to teach me about queerness." Maya is looking for the same resources I yearned for in my youth. But in the early 2010s, finding likeminded queer teens felt far more difficult. Today, hashtags and trends have made creating a sense of community on digital queer spaces easier than ever.
But as these spaces continue to evolve, it is imperative that social media platforms hold themselves accountable for the safety and comfort of its young, queer users.
In June 2019, YouTube was called out by some LGBTQ+ creators for actively deprioritizing their content, effectively preventing them from reaching greater viewership. YouTube also came fire that same month for failing to monitor homophobic advertisements during Pride Month. And YouTube isn't the only platform that's been accused of negligence. In Jan. 2020, the German digital culture site Netzpolitik called out TikTok for "hiding videos of queer and fat users." In response, TikTok defended its policy, stating that its intent was to "protect vulnerable users." I reached out to representatives from TikTok and YouTube about these allegations and did not hear back by time of publication.
Brett M. Peters, Director of Media & Strategic Partnerships at It Gets Better Project, tells me that these platforms must do better to moderate hateful comments. "Oftentimes, negative commenters won't use outright hate speech but find other ways to misgender and harass LGBTQ+ users," he says. "The automation technology around moderation needs to become more advanced and nuanced as these platforms grow and foster LGBTQ+ inclusion."
Kenny agrees, pointing out that social media platforms have a responsibility to work with and listen to LGBTQ+ organizations. "As the needs of our community evolve, so must the platforms and spaces we use," she says. "When we know that many LGBTQ+ people utilize the internet as one of the only outlets to find resources about their identity, health, and wellbeing, it is essential that those spaces are providing accurate information."
Moreover, college students believe that social media platforms could be doing more to give back to users who have given so much to the apps. "I just hope YouTube knows how much I rely on the platform," Maya tells me. "It's kind of scary when I think about it."
As someone who once depended on safe, virtual spaces as I was coming to terms with my own identity, watching these platforms fail their audience feels urgent and detrimental. I believe queer internet spaces are vital for the development of LGBTQ+ youth, and it is my greatest hope that as social media continues to evolve, these platforms will rise to the challenge and hold themselves accountable, taking real, actionable measures to protect their younger, queer users.
With our human rights under attack IRL, queer folks have historically turned to our URL communities for solace. For many of us, these online spaces may be all we have left.
VSCO Press, in partnership with JUV Consulting, a marketing consultancy founded by a collective of students, and staffed entirely by a team aged 14 to 23.
Clare Kenny, Director of Youth Engagement at GLAAD.
Brett Peters, Director of Media & Strategic Partnerships at It Gets Better Project.