Guest blog: Social Media, Homophobia & Young People

Posted 8 Jun 2011

I would like to extend a HUGE thank you to Matt from KCFN for guest blogging on Online Youth Outreach this week on:Social Media, Homophobia & Young People . We need to explore how to use social media to offer a voice to young people suffering in silence and challenge the individuals and organisations who collude and discriminate people due to their sexuality.

Recently I was lucky enough to attend the ‘Connected Generation unConference’ event in London. The event was great with plenty of stimulating conversation around current issues in participation and youth engagement. One session had a particular resonance for me – a discussion around dealing with homophobia and racism when working with children & young people in digital settings.

Growing up as a young person in Kent we never spoke about sexuality or gender identity. Section 28 was still in force and our teachers were forbidden by law from discussing these issues with us. Young LGBT people had no access to support or information and had to come to terms with their sexuality by themselves. With the repeal of section 28 in 2003 it looked as though young LGBT people would finally be given the same support and access to information as everyone else.

But despite the legislative changes, young LGBT people are still suffering from discrimination which affects their mental health and their ability to achieve. The National Union of Students LGBT campaign reports that 72% of young LGBT people have played truant or feigned illness to avoid homophobic bullying at school.(1) Despite this shocking statistic only 6% of schools in Britain have any policy on dealing with homophobic bullying. Young people are being brought up in a culture where homophobia is not challenged in schools, and sadly this discrimination often spills over into violence, with one survey finding that 41% of under-18 year olds had experienced violence because of their sexuality(2). Some practitioners like to think that this sort of experience only affects the minority, but with the growth of social media young LGBT people are experiencing a new wave of discrimination. This discrimination may not be as palpable as violent hate crimes, but it can be just as damaging.

In October America was rocked by three weeks which saw at least five LGBT teenagers commit suicide after being bullied online. This itself came in the wake of two 11 year olds killing themselves as a result of homophobic bullying.(3). Research by LGBT groups in the UK estimates that one in five young LGBT people attempt suicide. Under the anonymity of the internet homophobic bullying is on the rise and it is young people who are suffering the most (4).

So what are the reasons for the rise in anti-gay bullying online? The anonymous nature of many internet sites is certainly a factor, but from my experience it is the lack of challenges to homophobia that is the biggest problem. In the first case some practitioners are still reticent when it comes to discussing sexuality with young people. Perhaps this is the ‘ghost of section 28’ but there is still a form of taboo around sexuality and young people. Secondly the restrictive nature of many social networking sites own terms of use sometimes makes it difficult to challenge this behaviour. Facebook, for example, has no policy against the use of homophobic language or homophobic bullying. Homophobic comments or posts will therefore not be removed unless they insight violence, meaning that young people being bullied on Facebook will find it very difficult to have those perpetrating the abuse punished or even to have the offending posts removed. This is a continuation of the culture where homophobia goes unchallenged, where those carrying out the bullying see no consequences from their actions and therefore no reason to stop.

The task of challenging this form of bullying will often fall to us, as both adults and people working with young people. Yet how are we to do this if we refuse to engage with young people over the issues? The first step in addressing the issue is to be open in talking about sexuality and related issues with young people. By removing the taboo around sexuality and young people we can encourage young people to talk about their concerns, including any bullying or other issues they are going through.

One of the key arenas where we should be beginning to challenge homophobia is in our school system, and there are several very good projects currently running to raise awareness around the issues of homophobic bullying in schools. Schools Out provides schools with a variety of toolkits, resources and teaching packs to promote education about homophobic bullying. Tackle Homophobia is another organisation which provides information on various approaches to encourage positive discussion around the issues, including resources for young people in primary and secondary education.

When it comes to the policies held by social networking sites on homophobic content the issue becomes less clear. Do sites like Facebook function as a platform or a publisher? If we view Facebook as a publisher then it ultimately becomes responsible for any content generated by users. Facebook itself uses the label of ‘platform’, implying that it is a neutral public space, where users are the ones responsible for the content they create.

This leaves us with the question – “Who ultimately polices the content uploaded by online users?”.
As practitioners we can challenge inappropriate content, but ultimately we must aim to empower young people to take the lead in this.


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One Response

  1. Expect More. - 1 Mar 2012 |

    [...] Even with that said, current figures and recent events still shock. A horrific 1 in 6 Black students in the UK have been subjected to racist abuse at their current institution. There have been appalling cases of sexism at LSE and Oxford in recent years, and 72% of LGBTQ young people have played truant or feigned illness to avoid homophobic bullying. [...]

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