While Rose’s parents were supportive not just of her identity as a lesbian but also of her sharing about it as she chose to, many parents are very nervous about their kids opening up about LGBTQ+ identities online, afraid they will be targets for discrimination.
The public, permanent and searchable nature of the internet makes them worry. Each platform has its own level of disclosure and safety. While coming out online might lead to unexpected consequences, Rose felt that an Instagram story or post is “more likely to be seen by someone who follows you” (presumably a friend or at least a friendly acquaintance) versus “a random person who might target you.”
For Rose, the reactions were mostly positive. And choosing when to come out and sharing via a social post, where you can delete any thoughtless response, can be empowering. But for parents, sharing personal details about intimate facets of one’s life — from sexual orientation to a neurodivergent diagnosis — can seem like a risky choice because it potentially exposes their child to an array of social consequences.
“I’m all for stigma reduction,” one mother of a transgender and neurodiverse teenager told me, “but does it have to be my kid on the front lines?”
Parents have reason to worry. Although people who are LGBTQ+ are much more accepted now than in past generations, there has been a backlash in recent years, making coming out a sometimes fraught situation, and likely reminding parents what it was like when they were in school. (In a Post survey of trans adults, 45 percent said school made them feel unsafe, compared to 10 percent of adults overall.)
For many young people today, sharing their gender or sexual identity online doesn’t always involve a big announcement. Some kids might add a subtle sign like a hashtag or a symbol (such as an LGBTQ Pride flag), or update their social bio to include their pronouns. For others, telling family or friends becomes an experience they then share online. Take Aaron and Austin Rhodes, twins and YouTube personalities who shared a now-viral video of them coming out to their father in 2015.
The same year, YouTube star Ingrid Nilsen made a video coming out to her audience. It has been viewed 18 million times, and many have commented that the video inspired them to come out or affirmed their identity.
To better understand and support our children, we must understand their reasons for sharing so openly. For many parents, our response to our kid’s social media disclosures is rooted in our own experiences of stigma. Think about therapy, for instance. When parents today were teens, they did not need to be told “don’t tell anyone” if they were, say, seeing a therapist for depression. They just knew it wasn’t something to disclose. Today, therapy is no longer so stigmatized. Kids announce when they have a therapy appointment, or maybe even share techniques they’ve learned with peers.
The situation is similar for those with learning differences, and many appreciate the sense of community and group support that can come from participating in online affinity spaces, whether it is a Discord server for fans of Anime, or an online forum for people with a specific diagnosis like ADHD.
Coming out about a learning difference, a neurodivergent identity, or a diagnosis is different from coming out as LBGTQ+, but the experiences do share important elements, including parents’ worries about searchability, stigma and discrimination.
Jacqueline Nesi, a psychologist who studies social media and adolescents’ development, finds that teens and tweens have some awareness of the possible downsides of posting about mental health — but it is hard to resist an immediate form of social support. “It can be really powerful to meet people online who have the same concerns that you do, to get the social support that you’re maybe not getting at all in your in-person experiences, to be able to find people who have had the same experience as you,” she says. “It can make a young person who is struggling feel like they’re not alone.”
While many young people still choose to be private about mental health struggles, neurodivergence or LGBTQIA+ identities, those who share in digital spaces may experience fewer problems with their peers than parents might imagine. And even for those who prefer to keep things more private, living in a culture where some people disclose may make it easier to seek support and community.
“Kids are living in a world where they are digital natives,” says John Sovec, a therapist and author of “Out: A Parent’s Guide to Supporting Your LGBTQIA+ Kid Through Coming Out and Beyond.”
“So using social media to announce they’re coming out, or making a video is a really big developmental piece that’s authentic to how they communicate with the world they live in now.”
Devorah Heitner is the author of “Growing Up in Public: Coming of Age in a Digital World.”