Shaping one’s identity is a central part of adolescence. Many parents want to give their kids the freedom to explore and question who they are—including their sexuality and gender. The challenge is knowing when questions come from within a child, and when they arise out of pressure from peers, or from strangers online.
Social media and other platforms can provide resources for kids who are exploring. But some of the people who teens encounter online may push them to feel they have to make a choice about their gender identity, and that the choice represents picking a side.
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A study published in June in the journal Pediatrics found that nearly 10% of teens in more than a dozen Pittsburgh high schools identified as gender-diverse, a term that applies to people who don’t identify as strictly female or male. A national estimate from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention was around 2%. The researchers said the CDC likely undercounted the true number, because its surveys don’t necessarily account for all possible gender identifications.
“Gender-diverse people have always existed but they didn’t necessarily have a community or a way to find that community,” said Crystal Cole, medical director of the Center for Gender Affirming Medicine at Akron Children’s Hospital in Ohio. “What we’re seeing now are young people comfortable exploring their gender identity and finding communities of people who will accept them and not judge them. That’s one of the wonderful things about social media.”
There has been debate in academia and the medical community over the role that social media has played in the apparent increase in teenage discussion and exploration of gender identity. Social-media platforms have recently been implicated in influencing eating disorders and spreading Tourette-like tics in teen girls.
“Everything your child does is going to be influenced by the internet, whether it’s how they dress, the music they listen to, how they feel about their body or what they consider to be attractive or healthy,” Dr. Cole said. “Exploration of gender identity is normal in adolescents and now it’s socially acceptable to explore that. I don’t think parents need to be worried about that.”
Samantha Busa, clinical director of the Gender and Sexuality Service at NYU Langone Health, said, “For LGBTQ youth, the internet can be an incredible place for them, a safe space for them to connect with others like them.”
It can be a lifesaver. In many cases, parents aren’t supportive, which leads teens to seek support online. LGBT kids are at increased risk of anxiety, depression, bullying and suicidal ideation, according to the Trevor Project, a nonprofit suicide-prevention organization for LGBT youth.
Still, Dr. Busa said, when teens explore their identity online, a concerned adult can provide a reality check. “It’s important to monitor their safety and help them decipher the validity of the information they’re seeing,” she said.
Research and controversy
Lisa Littman, a doctor who has studied the influence of peers and social media on questions around gender identity, has been at the center of the debate.
Dr. Littman in 2018 came under criticism while affiliated with the Brown University School of Public Health, when a journal published her study of 256 parents of children who had experienced gender dysphoria. The issue: 87% said it was sudden, and happened after their kids increased social media or internet use or after friends in their peer group identified as transgender, or both.
Transgender advocates accused her of being anti-transgender because the paper suggested gender dysphoria could be socially contagious. The scientific journal in which her study appeared asked her to revise the article to emphasize that the findings were based on parent reporting and to clarify that “rapid-onset gender dysphoria” wasn’t a formal diagnosis.
“‘Someone on the internet can’t tell you what your identity is based on your likes or dislikes.’”
Dr. Littman—who now runs a nonprofit research organization—said she was a supporter of LGBT rights and her work was motivated by a desire to help people struggling with their identity. She said the clinicians with whom she works have found that when kids feel pressure to label themselves, they become more dysphoric.
Earlier this week a journal published the results of a survey Dr. Littman conducted of 100 adults who, at various ages, had chosen to undergo gender transition through surgery or medication and later decided to stop or reverse the treatment. Many survey respondents who had decided to transition said they found encouragement to do so online, on platforms such as YouTube.
Noah Rembert initially joined the Discord chat app to talk to friends while playing videogames. During pandemic-quarantine days, the teen said he wandered into other discussion groups with people he didn’t know. He started spending up to six hours a day on the app.
One server, as Discord chat rooms are called, was a gathering place for artists and people interested in Japanese anime. It was also known to be inclusive of people in the LGBT community. For the first time, Noah said, he was privy to frank discussions about gender identity and sexuality.
Noah, 17 years old, said he had never previously questioned his sexuality or gender identity but that he was never into stereotypically masculine things like sports. He preferred fashion and art. He liked cosplay—dressing up as characters from movies, books and videogames—and occasionally chose female characters. “I started to wonder if interests equated to gender identity,” he said.
Noah, who finished high school early and earned his associate’s degree from a community college in Fullerton, Calif., said members in the Discord server talked about being pansexual—being attracted to people regardless of their sex or gender identity. Some also talked about being gender-fluid, meaning their gender identity or expression can change over time. He asked his new online friends—about a half-dozen people who said they were teens and young adults—how he would know if those definitions applied to him.
“It got to the point where people told me that if I’m feeling this way, I am gender-fluid. It was very black and white. At that point I was like, ‘Maybe they’re right,’” said Noah. “Was this something that’s always been there and I hadn’t noticed it before?” Some of his childhood friends told him it seemed out of left field, he said, adding, “I ignored them.”
When he began identifying in the group as gender-fluid and pansexual he said he received a lot of positive attention and acceptance from fellow members, which felt good.
But he said discussions in the group were often polarizing. “It was: ‘If you’re part of this community, you’re a great person, and if you’re not, you’re homophobic and racist.’ You can’t just say you support the LGBTQ+ community, you have to be in it. And if you’re part of it, you have to find a very specific label and stick with it,” he said.
Last fall, about six months after he joined the Discord group, Noah told his parents that he was gender-fluid and pansexual. Noah said he expected his parents to immediately accept or reject his identity. Instead, they asked him how he arrived at his conclusion and encouraged him to think it through. They also asked to look through the Discord servers.
His mother, Alisha Rembert, said messages she read looked like group members were manipulating him. “It was total strangers pushing him,” she said. Some people encouraged him to run away from home if his parents didn’t accept him. One person said he would come to his house and hurt his parents if they didn’t embrace Noah’s identity.
Noah’s parents told him to take a break from Discord and found him a registered family therapist. After a month, Noah concluded that he was neither gender-fluid nor pansexual.
A Discord spokesman said the company supports LGBT discussions and hosts official partner servers from the community. These groups “provide a welcoming and friendly space for users who identify or support these communities,” he said.
“We believe that online communities can foster belonging, friendship and camaraderie. However, we know this is not always the case,” he said, adding, “We encourage parents to talk to their teens about who they interact with and what kind of content they see and share online.”
Pressure from others is where things can turn harmful on social media, said Dr. Cole. “Someone on the internet can’t tell you what your identity is based on your likes or dislikes,” she said. “As a parent, you don’t want all of your child’s discussion about their identity to be with someone they’ve never met.”
What parents can do
The experts I spoke with suggested ways to approach discussions of gender identity with kids.
Ask questions carefully. Dr. Cole said a lot of parents are baffled when their kids say they’re nonbinary or gender diverse because those terms weren’t around when they were teens. “One way to play it cool and demonstrate that you’re being open is to ask them what that term means to them,” Dr. Cole said. “Even though there are general definitions for these terms, often how someone describes them may be different than what you’ve read online.”
Next, she said, it’s good to ask your child how long they’ve felt the way they do and then ask if there’s anything you can do for them.
Approach the conversation sideways. If you suspect your child has questions about gender identity, Dr. Cole suggests telling them that you’ve read about kids who are gender diverse and ask whether they know anyone who is. “Asking questions without directly talking about them can show you’re supportive and open up a conversation,” she said.
Steer them to widely accepted sources. Experts say The Trevor Project and PFLAG are two good sources of information for both parents and teens.
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