For years now, the Internet has been recognized as a powerful tool for social support. Whether it is Facebook, Twitter, or email, people are using the Internet to communicate with their family and friends every day. This may be an especially important resource for young people who may not have as strong social support from people in real life. A growing community that is using the internet as a support system are lesbian, gay, and bisexual (LGB) youth. In fact, a study conducted in Australia found that the LGB youth they talked with were more likely to receive support online than offline.
Recently, the Center for innovative Public Health along with collaborators at Latrobe University and the University of New Hampshire, set out to better understand how the online world affects the health and well being of LGB youth; and how this may be similar and different to non-LGB youth. Two focus groups were conducted: one with 33 LGB youth and the other with 29 non-LGB youth. The groups were held as online chats that took place over a 3-day period. Youth were asked various questions about their online life, such as: “Do you have friends that are exclusively online?” and “Have you used the Internet to help you understand your feelings of sexual attraction?”
Results showed that LGB youth are not only using the Internet more adventurously, but they are also using it as a type of safety net. Young people are using the Internet as “a tool for creating and maintaining positive and close relationships,” the researchers conclude. Even though these relationships may include people they do not know in real life, the interactions are providing critical, sometimes life-changing support. LGB youth are active online and experience many benefits from their online lives, including: coming out, meeting potential partners, and acquiring sexual health information. Indeed, while the Internet is part of all young people’s lives, it seems that for some LGB youth, the Internet may be an even more essential resource than it is for non-LGB youth.
While there is concern regarding the safety of some online practices like meeting people not known face-to-face, the Internet appears to be filling critical gaps in social support and health information for LGB youth. Adults working with LGB youth need to recognize the importance of the Internet for them; and to work with them to navigate this vital space healthfully—which may include helping them negotiating online privacy and boundaries with their parents.
For more information about LGB youth, you can find information, here, from Just the Facts Coalition, which includes the American Psychological Association and the American Academy of Pediatrics, among others.
Acknowledgements: Thank you to Jennifer Renzas for her contributions to this blog.
This report was written based on data from: Hillier L, Mitchell KJ, Ybarra ML. The Internet as a safety net: Findings from a series of online focus groups with LGB and non-LGB young people in the United States. Journal of LGBT Youth. 2012;9(3):225-246. Access at: Center for Innovative Public Health Research: Publications
 Hillier, L., Horsely, P., & Kurdas, C. (2004). It made me feel braver, I was no longer alone: same sex attracted young people negotiating the pleasures and pitfalls of the Internet. In J. A. Nieto (Ed.), Sexuality in the Pacific. Madrid: AECI (Asociación Española de Coperación Internacional) and the AEEP (Asociación Española de Estudios del Pacífico).