Tumblr, the popular microblogging site, recently announced a ban on “adult content” to achieve a “better, more positive” space. The ban follows a slew of increasingly restrictive policies across other social media platforms cracking down on content perceived to be “objectionable.”
The announcement has been met with outrage from kink, poly, and other subcultural groups with longstanding online communities on the verge of being erased. But the sweeping and unevenly applied nature of these policies also often end up blocking innocuous content from LGBTQ users. Since Tumblr’s announcement, users have begun reporting flagged posts that include line drawings of two men hugging and photos of men kissing. Policies and algorithms that block LGBTQ content on social media—whether intentionally or not—will also have an unfortunate ripple effect on another group of people: LGBTQ adolescents.
Some may think that social media users are simply overreacting, but LGBTQ content being labeled “NSFW” or “adult” on social media platforms is not a recent development. One writer noted that her blog posts about getting married to her wife were flagged on the site earlier in the year. Tumblr was previously under fire for blocking hashtags like “#gay” and “#bisexual” from searches on its mobile app because it considered them adult content. This is not limited to one platform, either: YouTube has been criticized for demonetizing videos by LGBTQ creators.
Certainly, some of these issues result from the fact that social media platforms rely on automated methods of flagging content—it’s time-consuming and impossible for staff to manually review every post, video, or image. But regardless of the cause, the result is the same: These companies are preventing users from seeing LGBTQ content.
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What people may not realize is that for LGBTQ teens in particular, social media can be a critical source of education, information, and social support.
According to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than a million U.S. teens identify as LGBTQ—roughly the population size of cities like Dallas or San Diego. In the absence of LGBTQ-inclusive sex education in the United States, the internet offers spaces where these adolescents can anonymously learn about sexual orientation, gender identity, and same-gender relationships and sex. Compared to non-LGBTQ youth, LGBTQ adolescents are five times more likely to have looked for information about sexuality online.
Nearly two-thirds of LGBTQ teens have used the internet to connect with other LGBTQ people, and various platforms have fostered online communities that provide teens with social support. YouTube hosts countless coming-out videos from LGBTQ teens and young adults, with commenters often providing affirmation and sharing their own stories. On Reddit, the r/LGBTeens forum alone has 47,500 subscribers. Numerous Tumblr pages provide support and build community among LGBTQ teens across the globe. Many teens may lack this support offline, particularly if they are not out or if their families don’t approve of their identities.
LGBTQ teens are also more likely than non-LGBTQ teens to find romantic and sexual partners online. In a recently completed study, my colleagues and I found that 60 percent of transgender and nonbinary teens have used the Internet and smartphone apps to look for LGBTQ partners. In another project, we found that 85 percent of gay and bisexual teen boys had looked for partners online; over half had used online dating and sex apps like Tinder and Grindr even though they technically are not allowed to do so as minors under the age of 18.
A primary motivator for such heavy reliance on the internet for social and romantic connections is the difficulty and risk sometimes involved in seeking out other LGBTQ peers in person, especially for those who aren’t out or who live in an environment unsupportive of LGBTQ people. A 16-year-old in our study told us that social media “takes away a lot of the anxiety of meeting someone in person. It also makes it a lot easier to find someone else who is gay instead of playing the ‘are they gay or not gay’ guessing game offline.”
Being able to discuss their sexual orientation and gender identity on quasi-anonymous sites like Tumblr—and seeing themselves represented in others’ content—could also help LGBTQ teens make sense of their experiences, feel more in control of their lives, and promote resilience and well-being.
Not only do increased social media restrictions impact youth themselves, but they affect the ability of researchers to better understand LGBTQ youths’ lives, health, and well-being.
Facebook refused this past spring to approve several advertisements seeking participants for two of my studies about LGBTQ adolescents’ sexual health. These ads (which featured images of fully clothed, smiling youth) were blocked because of policies requiring increased scrutiny of ads related to health and civil rights.
Eventually, a revised version of our ads was approved, but as many scientists who conduct research focused on LGBTQ communities continue to rely on social media recruitment, policies that view diverse sexualities and genders as political or objectionable and therefore worthy of censoring will make it increasingly difficult to shed light on the needs of an already marginalized population.
Of course, social media policies on content are needed, as in the case of hate speech or false news. But social media platforms need to do a better job focusing their efforts on blocking truly problematic content like child pornography and shutting down advertising practices that exploit vulnerable groups.
And certainly, LGBTQ teens’ experiences on social media are not uniformly positive, as these spaces can facilitate cyberbullying and harassment, and platforms need to better enforce rules against this behavior.
But an unfortunate, and perhaps unintended, consequence of increasingly restrictive social media policies is the implicit message that different sexualities and genders (other than the dominant straight and cisgender ones) are inappropriate or even unwelcome in public life. The trend toward implementing overly broad and sometimes arbitrary bans on “adult” or “objectionable” content on social media will continue to result in erasure of spaces that allow LGBTQ teenagers to engage in normal teenage behaviors that their straight and cisgender peers have the freedom to do offline.
That is: to discover who they are, meet friends, and find love.