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Safe online spaces an increasingly vital lifeline for LGBT teens

Despite sharp criticism from the White House and countless educators, Florida is pressing forward with an extremely controversial bill dubbed the “Don’t Say Gay” law by its opponents. The proposed legislation, which US President Joe Biden has called “hateful”, would curtail discussions about sexual orientation or gender identity in the state’s public schools, and would even enable parents to sue schools that they believe have violated the prohibition.

Observers have warned that the bill would have a dangerous chilling effect on educators and would threaten the mental health of LGBT youth. Many young people who identify as LGBT see supportive teachers as a safe haven, especially when facing challenges at home—a 2021 survey found that only 1 out of 3 LGBT youth in the United States felt that their home affirmed their identity, and this figure is likely far lower in countries where LGBT people are heavily stigmatised. While the “Don’t Say Gay” law has shone an international spotlight on how difficult it can be for LGBT teens to find safe spaces to express themselves, the Internet has opened up new possibilities. Social media app Yubo, for example, has made inclusivity a particular priority, leading countless LGBT youth from around the world to flock to the platform to find community.

Yubo: pioneering a more inclusive social media

There’s been plenty of ink spilled about how some elements of social media, such as the quest for “likes” on Instagram, can be damaging for young people. But social media can also offer young people support and companionship that they may not be able to find anywhere else. According to research by the LGBT crisis intervention organisation the Trevor Project, some 69% of LGBT youth feel that their sexual orientation and gender identity is affirmed online—compared to 50% at school and only 34% at home—and 96% of LGBT youth reported that social media positively affects their wellbeing.

Some social media platforms have made a particular effort to extend themselves to the LGBT community, notably the livestreaming app Yubo. The app, which has more than 50 million users worldwide after a pandemic-era surge in new users, is specifically designed to offer young people a safe outlet. Yubo has a dedicated community for youth aged 13 to 17 and deploys a technological solution to verify users’ ages and identities to ensure that they are who they say they are; the app also recently launched a Safety Hub offering users and parents tips on how to stay safe online. Many of Yubo’s young users identify as LGBT, with more than 2 million Yubo users featuring the pride flag in their profiles, and Yubo worked with the UK-based NGO Mermaids to craft a list of 35 gender identities and 50 sets of pronouns for users to choose from.

Yubo’s focus on making genuine connections and forming online friendships, rather than just trying to get “likes” or “follows”, is a vital part of its appeal to young people. As LGBT ambassador Zach explained, “Yubo gives users the option to meet like-minded people, who will be there for you despite not knowing you physically and can often provide support and comfort you may not get from your community, family, or friends. It’s the family you can choose”.

This welcoming online community plays a particularly important role in the lives of young people without supportive family members. Gay Muslim influencer Thee Amir, for example, considered the makeup tutorials he hosted on Yubo a “lifeline” after his parents found out about his sexuality and struggled to accept it.

Move online a silver lining of the pandemic era

Safe online spaces like Yubo have also been particularly vital for the global LGBT community during the coronavirus era, as lockdowns and school closures have left many young people trapped in a home that may not be supportive of their identities. One UK survey gave a hint of the scale of the problem—more than half of LGBT young people across the UK’s four nations said that they felt lonely and isolated in lockdown, and as high as 80% of LGBT young people reported that their mental health had declined since the pandemic began.

Studies have found that social media was pivotal in helping LGBT youth navigate the upheaval caused by the coronavirus pandemic, with young people successfully curating their online experience to create safe spaces for them to discuss their gender and sexuality. According to one study, individuals identifying as LGBT were less likely to suffer from depression during quarantine if they spent time socialising online.

While LGBT young people began spending more time online out of necessity, the move to the digital sphere comes with some notable benefits. Online activities are inherently more inclusive, allowing a broader group of people to participate, including people who haven’t come out yet to their families and people with disabilities.

The rollout of highly effective coronavirus vaccines has thankfully allowed schools to reopen and life to get back to something close to normal in many jurisdictions. At the same time, legislation like Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” act has highlighted how difficult it is for LGBT teens to find safe spaces to discuss and explore their gender and sexuality. Many young people managed to find those welcoming spaces online during the pandemic—and they are likely to keep this digital reflex even as the pandemic abates.

This article does not necessarily reflect the opinions of the editors or management of EconoTimes

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