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How LGBTQ+ Youth Are Navigating Exploration and Risks of Sexual Exploitation Online

June 7, 2023

25 Minute Read

Key Findings
  1. LGBTQ+ teens reported a greater reliance on online communities and spaces.
  2. LGBTQ+ teens reported higher rates of experiences involving nudes and online sexual interactions.
  3. Compared to other teens, cisgender non-hetero male teens reported higher rates of risky encounters and of attempting to handle unsafe situations alone.
  4. Young people prefer to turn to offline relationships (caregivers and friends) when they feel unsafe. However, 1 in 3 LGBTQ+ teens would still rather handle a dangerous situation alone than seek help.
Research Conducted in Partnership:


Technology and online communities have become an integral part of our daily lives. We use technology to stay in contact with loved ones, learn new things, and build relationships with people around the world. For kids today, that means romantic and sexual exploration also happens online — a reality that is very different from how most parents grew up.

While some online experiences are consensual, they also carry inherent risks. Previous research has shown these risks are heightened for LGBTQ+ youth and that this population often responds differently to harmful online experiences. In this study, Thorn builds off the existing body of research to ensure strategies to combat online child sexual exploitation are inclusive and relevant to the needs of LGBTQ+ youth.


For many young LGBTQ+ people, the internet feels like a safer, more representative alternative to their offline communities, presenting unique opportunities to explore and connect more openly. Many LGBTQ+ participants reported digital forums as places where they can be their true and authentic selves.

Platform awareness & usage

When it comes to the many platforms in today’s digital landscape, LGBTQ+ participants reported a wider awareness of what exists and higher overall usage rates across platforms. Their awareness of existing platforms was higher across both established and lesser-known, newer, or upstart platforms.

The platforms where LGBTQ+ teens showed the greatest increased familiarity as compared with their non-LGBTQ+ counterparts were: Discord, Among Us, Twitch, and Omegle.


General platform awareness among young people

While generally, teens reported similar rates of daily use across platforms regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity, there were a few platforms for which LGBTQ+ teens were notably more likely to report daily usage, with the greatest gaps reported on Discord, Reddit, Twitch, and TikTok.

Sample sizes limited the extent of analysis among LGBTQ+ teens. Still, within the wider LGBTQ+ group (aged 13-20), cisgender non-hetero male participants often reported the highest daily usage rates — with Discord, Twitch, Twitter, and WhatsApp seeing the highest usage compared to other groups.

Secondary accounts

Some respondents reported maintaining secondary accounts (sometimes referred to as “finstas”), or multiple accounts on single platforms, in order to share content more privately or outside of the view of others in their social circles. LGBTQ+ teens were twice as likely to have a secondary account than non-LGBTQ+ respondents.

This image showcases the prevalence of secondary account among young people

Reasons for making a secondary account

Across teens, regardless of gender identity or sexual orientation, the primary reason reported for maintaining a secondary account was to keep activity private from parents. Uniquely for LGBTQ+ teens, the second most common reason was because “I can be my authentic or real self.” Transgender, non-binary, or other non-cisgender teens were the most likely among all groups to cite this reason for creating a secondary account.

With the exception of family members, non-LGBTQ+ teens generally interact with the same groups of people on both their primary and secondary accounts, such as people who share their interests, friends from school, and people they know online. By comparison, LGBTQ+ teens reported much greater separation between the communities they interact with on primary and secondary accounts.

LGBTQ+ teens with secondary accounts were nearly half as likely to interact with kids from school on their secondary accounts and almost 1.5 times more likely to interact with people they only know online.

Who young people are interacting with by account type

Relationships within online communities

Online-only relationships were more prevalent among LGBTQ+ participants, with 40% of LGBTQ+ participants reporting they have never met the majority of the people they interact with online compared to 25% of non-LGBTQ+ participants. Cisgender male non-hetero teens reported the highest rates, with 55% saying the majority of people they interact with online are online-only relationships.

This image shows the foundational attitudes - importance of online community and exploration

Perception of risks & lived experiences

The internet can offer more inclusive and private places for exploration and connection as compared to some offline communities; however, there’s widespread acknowledgement across all groups — regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity — that young LGBTQ+ people face unique challenges when it comes to online safety in general. Bullying, harassment, and trolling are among the top challenges identified by participants as uniquely or disproportionately impacting LGBTQ+ young people online.

There’s still a lot of hate towards LGBTQIA out there. I’ve been called all kinds of names, and if I’m not called names, or being told I don’t know yet because I’m not old enough, then I’m being hit on even though I’m way too young. It’s gross.


I have seen what people write on LGBTQ’s pictures and it’s ugly. I don’t have to understand or agree and I don’t have to be mean.


LGBTQ+ participants’ personal perception of their vulnerability to online risks and their lived experiences of these risks outpace those of non-LGBTQ+ young people by notable margins. Compared to non-LGBTQ+ participants, LGBTQ+ participants report higher anticipation of being bullied, witnessing potentially distressing content — such as racist, sexist, or anti-LGBTQ+ comments — or receiving unsolicited requests for nudes from strangers.

This image shows the likelihood of experiencing risky online events by age group

LGBTQ+ participants were 1.5 to 2 times more likely to indicate prior experience of unwanted or potentially risky interactions online. These gaps were also seen among teens, and in some cases were larger for teens compared to young adults. For example, LGBTQ+ teens were more than twice as likely as non-LGBTQ+ teens to have reported receiving a request for nudes from someone they don’t know online; twice as likely to have reported getting blackmailed or receiving threats; 3 times more likely to have had an adult attempt to befriend and manipulate them online; and nearly 3 times as likely to have reported being bullied.

Attitudes & behaviors surrounding online sexual exploration

Platforms and technology are used as tools for sexual exploration. People of all ages text flirty messages or photos to a romantic partner, seek out sexual imagery on adult websites, or meet someone on a dating app.

ACCORDING TO THORN’S REPORT ON the role of caregivers IN 2021:

1 in 3 caregivers had themselves shared nudes.

3 in 4 agreed “[i]t’s normal for minors to want to explore sexuality, including through the use of technology, but it is important to stay safe.”

Young LGBTQ+ people may find the internet to be a safer and more private place for sexual exploration as compared to their offline worlds, and a place with greater inclusion and representation.

among young lgbtq+ people

75% agree that it’s important to explore sexual orientation and/or gender identity online.

Usage of dating apps & pornography platforms

The use of dating apps and websites geared toward sexually explicit content is not uncommon, and for many, particularly LGBTQ+ youth, it is a tool for exploration and identity formation. In some cases, the use of these services may be an attempt to find material that is representative of non-cisgender or non-heterosexual relationships, which LGBTQ+ communities find lacking in their offline worlds.

Among young adults (aged 18-20), 1 in 3 have used one common dating app (Tinder, Grindr, Hinge, or Bumble), half have used a pornography website, and 1 in 5 have used OnlyFans. While the use of these services is geared toward adults, many minors are also accessing these platforms. Nearly 1 in 6 teens report having used one of the listed dating apps, one quarter have used a pornography website, and 1 in 10 reported having used OnlyFans.

This image shows the prevalence of dating app and pornography site usage by young people

In general, use of these sites was more common among LGBTQ+ teens. For example, the use of dating platforms is nearly twice as high among LBGTQ+ teens than their non-LGBTQ+ peers: 24% of LGBTQ+ teens reported having used at least one of the dating apps included in the survey compared to 13% of non-LGBTQ+ respondents of the same age group. Use of platforms that cater to sexually explicit content or pornography was also higher among LGBTQ+ teens, who reported twice the likelihood to have ever visited one compared to their non-LGBTQ+ peers: 2 in 5 LGBTQ+ teens (41%) have used a pornography site compared to 1 in 5 (19%) non-LGBTQ+ teens.

Perceptions of producing & sharing nude content among peers

The practice of using technology — whether direct messaging, live streams, disappearing images, or many other digital pathways — to share personal sexually explicit content, or nudes, is becoming viewed as increasingly common.

among all participants

1 in 3 reported their friends have shared their own nudes.

When asked about perspectives specifically within the LGBTQ+ community, nearly half of LGBTQ+ teens agreed that it’s normal for LGBTQ+ people their age to share nudes with each other. This sense of normalization grows with age: A majority of LGBTQ+ young adults (aged 18-20) agreed that sending nudes is normal.

This image shows the frequency of sending and receiving of nudes by close friends

While some of these experiences are part of a consensual sexual exchange, they can also represent experiences of coercion and non-consensual exposure. Nearly half of all participants reported that their friends have received unsolicited nudes.

Across all age groups involved in the study, LGBTQ+ participants reported higher rates of experiences with nude images or videos than non-LGBTQ+ participants.

LGBTQ+ teens specifically were more likely to say their friends are sharing their own nudes compared to non-LGBTQ+ teens and were more likely to have reported that their friends have had experiences with their own nudes being leaked or re-shared without their permission. LGBTQ+ teens were much more likely to be subjected to receiving unsolicited nudes than non-LGBTQ+ teens.

Cisgender non-hetero males aged 13-17 said they believe experiences with nudes are happening among their friendship groups most frequently compared to other groups surveyed and were more likely than any other group to have reported their friends re-sharing someone else’s nudes.

Personal experiences with or exposure to nude imagery

When teen respondents reflected and reported on their own experiences, not just those of their friendship groups at large, the sending and receiving of nudes appears to be less common (however, this is likely at least somewhat an effect of self-report bias).

Rates of experiences with nudes differed across segments of LGBTQ+ teens depending on gender identity or sexual orientation. However, cisgender non-hetero male teens reported the highest rates of experiences across multiple types of encounters.

This image shows experience of sharing nudes by age group

Cisgender non-hetero male teens were the most likely to have shared their own nudes with 1 in 4 having reported this experience, compared to 1 in 6 cisgender non-hetero females or transgender, non-binary, or other non-cisgender respondents in the same age group. Cisgender non-hetero male teens were also two or more times as likely as other minors to have reported asking someone else to send them nudes, and two or more times as likely to have reported they had re-shared nude photos or videos of someone else.

Perspectives of participants who have not shared nude imagery

Of teens who have not previously shared nudes, nearly 20% said they have considered doing so. LGBTQ+ teens were nearly twice as likely as their non-LGBTQ+ peers to say that though they hadn’t shared nudes, they had considered it.

Most often, a teen’s decision not to share nudes was driven by a fear of the content being leaked or shown to others. Among LGBTQ+ teens, fears of losing control of imagery plays a larger role whereas non-LGBTQ+ teens are most concerned about parents or caregivers coming across this material or they have a general sense that it is wrong to share based on principle.

This image showcases the percentage of young people who considered sharing a nude, but chose not to

Nature of online & offline relationships with recipients of nudes

Sharing nudes is not an experience exclusive to online-only relationships. The majority of participants who said they have shared nudes, reported doing so with someone they already knew offline.

This image showcases the degree of familiarity with recipients of nudes

Technology serves both as a tool for sexual exploration in offline relationships as well as a place for digital sexual exploration. However, LGBTQ+ teens and young adults reported higher rates of having shared nudes with someone they only knew online.

A little over 1 in 3 teens who have shared nude imagery said they have done so with someone over the age of 18.

This image showcases age of recipients of nudes

While sample sizes are too small to examine differences between LGBTQ+ and non LGBTQ+ teens, across all teen participants sharing with adults occurs predominantly online, with 63% reporting they knew the adult they shared with only online.

Habits or methods of sharing nudes

Among participants who’d previously shared nudes, the leading ways to share are via one-on-one platforms or means of communication. These tend to take two main forms: DMs (direct messages) and native messaging applications on devices.

DMs in apps where content disappears were reported as the most popular means of distribution for all participants, followed by DMs in the messaging feature of social media apps.

This image showcases the methods for sharing nudes

While less common sharing mechanisms overall, roughly 1 in 6 teens reported they had shared nudes using a livestream app or functionality, and another 1 in 6 stated they’d shared using a cloud storage account. In both instances, teen respondents were 2.5 times more likely to have shared nudes using these methods than the young adult sharers in the survey.

While private exchange either via in-app messaging, native messaging, or video call remain the leading places to share self-generated sexually explicit content among teens, apps catering to adults for dating or explicit content are also being used. Despite age-gating policies on platforms such as these, approximately 1 in 6 teens reported using these services to share nudes.

Protective conversations

Young people are learning to navigate potentially risky situations online as they mature, informed by a mixture of conversations with family and friends, events around them, and firsthand experience. Unfortunately, in many cases, conversations about sensitive topics are slow to catch up with the reality young people face. They are left without relevant and relatable information to help them navigate the risks that come with some sexual experiences in the digital age. And while online relationships and forums offer important privacy and anonymity for young people, particularly those who identify as LGBTQ+, the people in their offline worlds – family and friends – remain the preferred source of support as they navigate online risks.

Discussing sensitive or risky coming of age topics with friends & family

The likelihood of discussing a range of common coming-of-age topics — such as puberty, substance abuse, safe sex, and others — differs somewhat across participant groups and with whom they might discuss the topic (e.g., parents, friends, and other online-only or offline connections).

Teens were most likely to report having these conversations with someone in their family, followed by friends. While LGBTQ+ teens reported similar, or slightly higher, rates of conversations with their families than did their non-LGBTQ+ peers, they showed notably higher rates of discussions on these topics with friends.

among participants aged 13-17

1 in 4 non-LGBTQ+ teens reported discussing bullying with their friends.

1 in 2 LGBTQ+ teens have done the same.

Although all teens were more likely to have conversations like this with friends they knew offline, LGBTQ+ teens were more likely than their non-LGBTQ+ peers to report having discussed these topics with friends they only know online.

Compared to non-LGBTQ+ peers, LGBTQ+ teens were:

4xmore likely to have discussed pornography

4xmore likely to have discussed sexting

3xmore likely to have discussed online sexual predators with an online friend who was under 18

Navigating & responding to online risks

Young people are responding to unwanted and/or potentially risky online experiences with a mixture of online and offline resources and relationships; their decisions of where to turn are often informed by the quality and accessibility of those resources, the anticipated outcomes of using them, and the perceived risk of the moment.

Prior research has shown that online tools act as the first line of defense — and in some cases the only means of responding — for many young people when they encounter a risky situation online.

when faced with a potentially unwanted or risky online experience,

survey respondents were 2X more likely to use blocking or reporting tools than confide in a caregiver, trusted adult, or friend.

However, neither platform reporting tools, nor online-only friends, take the place of offline support systems for young people. When asked, “when you feel unsafe online, who are you more likely to turn to?” more than half of participants reported they’d be more likely to turn to people they know in person than someone they only know online.

Unfortunately, many teens do not want to, or do not feel comfortable, turning to either their existing online or offline communities when in danger. For LGBTQ+ teens, 1 in 3 report if they felt unsafe online, they’d try to handle it themselves, including nearly half of cisgender non-hetero males.

Responses to harms & threats using online tools

In general, LGBTQ+ teens showed a slightly greater likelihood to use a platform safety tool such as blocking or reporting compared to non-LGBTQ+ teens. In a few instances, this was driven by higher rates of reporting as compared to blocking. While all teens generally showed similar levels of using platform safety tools if blackmailed or threatened, half of LGBTQ+ teens reported this experience to the platform compared to slightly more than one-third of non-LGBTQ+ teens.

Similar gaps were seen if teen respondents were recontacted by someone they had blocked or if they witnessed harmful content online. Importantly, this data only reflects the behaviors of those who had these experiences (vs. those who shared what they would hypothetically do in these situations); thus, sample sizes are smaller, and this observation should be treated as directional.

In only one case for those with lived experiences of these scenarios did non-LGBTQ+ teens show a notably greater likelihood to take action using a platform safety tool than their LGBTQ+ peers: When teens experienced an adult attempting to befriend or manipulate them online.

among participants aged 13-17

90% of non-LGBTQ+ teens blocked and/or reported an adult attempting to befriend or manipulate them to the platform.

Only 78% of their LGBTQ+ peers reported the same behavior.

While the majority of teens with lived experiences, both LGBTQ+ and non-LGBTQ+, used blocking and/or reporting when confronted with an adult attempting to befriend and manipulate them, it is notable that LGBTQ+ teens were twice as likely as non-LGBTQ+ teens to have not done so.

Human support networks

In general, teens — with little difference across sexual orientation or gender identity — showed similar rates of turning to a parent or caregiver when navigating an unwanted or potentially harmful experience online. However, the likelihood of looking to a parent/caregiver dropped considerably with age. Teen participants who had experienced one of the surveyed scenarios were at least twice as likely as young adults to have reported looking to a parent or caregiver when experiencing the presented scenario. While increased independence is assumed as young people mature to adulthood, anticipating the size of this shift away from parent/caregiver support systems underscores the importance of having safeguarding conversations early and often as kids develop.

While parents/caregivers were the clear leader in terms of human support for non-LGBTQ+ teens, for LGBTQ+ teens with lived experiences of at least one of the surveyed scenarios, they were nearly or as likely to turn to a friend for support as a parent/caregiver.

Compared to non-LGBTQ facing a situation in which an adult was trying to manipulate or groom them, LGBTQ+ teens were:

4xmore likely to tell a friend their age.

4xmore likely to tell a friend if they received an unsolicited request for nudes from a stranger.

2xas likely to confide in a friend if being blackmailed or receiving threats.

While sample sizes are small among the teen cohort with lived experiences, when looking more widely across all participants similar trends are evident.

The reliance on offline vs online relationships

Given the heavily digital lives young people lead, meaningful relationships now develop in both offline and online communities. In prior research, 1 in 3 youth (aged 9-17) reported some of their closest friends were only known to them online. However, most teens still look to in-person relationships more often than online relationships when reacting to an unwanted or potentially risky online experience.

Of teens, 63% said they would turn to someone they know in person if they felt unsafe online, while 10% would look to find support from someone they only know online.

This image showcases who teens turn to if exposes to unsafe online experiences or behaviors

While more than half of LGBTQ+ teens reported they would look for support from their offline community rather than their online community, this was still notably less than the trust in offline communities expressed by non-LGBTQ+ teens, for whom two-thirds stated they would turn to people they know in-person.

This discrepancy between LGBTQ+ and non-LGBTQ+ teens’ reliance on offline support was not accounted for in reliance on online relationships, as all teens showed similar likelihood to look to online relationships if they felt unsafe. Rather, the difference in reliance on offline support systems seems to become evident when observing the likelihood to try and handle risky situations by themselves. For both groups, the second most common response is to try and handle the situation on their own.

As observed in many of the responses, cisgender non-hetero male teens are a notable exception. Nearly half of cisgender non-hetero male teens said they would try to handle a situation in which they feel unsafe online by themselves.


57% believe their online-only teenaged friends to be a good source of advice.

Teen cisgender non-hetero males’ trust in these online-only friendships distinguishes them from both other LGBTQ+ and non-LGBTQ+ participants.

Factors impeding disclosure to caregivers or other trusted adults

While there are many reasons participants said they chose not to report harmful or threatening experiences to adults, they largely fell into one of two categories: social attitudes and discipline.

The leading obstacles to reporting to parents/caregivers or other trusted adults, as cited by teens who’d experienced an unwanted or potentially harmful online encounter, were concerns related to discipline. Slightly more than half (54%) of teens feared caregiver-delivered consequences such as being more closely monitored, having new rules established, or having their privileges to use certain platforms or devices taken away. In general, LGBTQ+ teens were roughly 10-20 points more likely to report fear of a consequence or loss of privilege than their non-LGBTQ+ peers.

Following disciplinary fears, social attitudes were often named as a reason for which teens did not disclose risky or harmful experiences to a caregiver or other trusted adult. Nearly 4 in 10 (38%) teens with lived experiences did not tell an adult because they felt “it wasn’t a big deal to me.” One quarter of teens did not tell an adult because they feared reporting would lead them to be labeled a “tattle tale” or “snitch.”

Many views related to disclosure barriers were shared by all participants, teens included. However, in addition to greater concern regarding consequences, LGBTQ+ participants (aged 13-20) reported greater concern than their non-LGBTQ+ peers for being cut off from their online communities.Transgender, non-binary, or other non-cisgender participants held uniquely high concerns regarding loss of community.

among transgender, non-binary, or other non-cisgender participants

1 in 3 did not confide in a caregiver or trusted adult over concern that reporting would lead to them being cut off from their online community.

This image showcases the reasons for not reporting risky online experiences to a caregiver or trusted adults

While data was limited in exploring the role of outness as a barrier for where LGBTQ+ participants would look for support if confronted with an unwanted or potentially harmful online experience, many LGBTQ+ participants identified this as a factor in their decision not to confide in a parent/caregiver or other trusted adult in response to one of the surveyed scenarios.

LGBTQ+ participants who said they were not out to their parents reported a lower likelihood to disclose the experience to a parent/caregiver if it occurred.

This image showcases the rates which LGBTQ+ teens think they will parent(s)/caregiver(s) about their online experiences vs. how often they actually did

This image showcases reasons for not reporting risky online experiences - outness concerns

Looking ahead

What our key findings teach us about community, technology, social media and what is needed to build a safer internet for teens and young adults.

1. LGBTQ+ teens reported a greater reliance on online communities and spaces.

The internet is integral in the lives of many young people, yet this survey underscored this is particularly the case for LGBTQ+ youth. LGBTQ+ teens uniquely rely on the perceived anonymity and privacy from offline communities as they mature through adolescence and the internet may provide greater access to others in the LGBTQ+ community, creating an inclusive social network potentially lacking in their offline worlds.

What should we do?

This group demonstrates the critical importance of approaching issues of online safety from a safeguarding lens, not a pursuit for digital isolation. Outright prohibitions of digital experiences are ineffective as a singular tool to combat online harms. Instead, safeguarding approaches should start from a place of awareness, should begin, in an age appropriate fashion, when kids are first getting online, and should be co-designed with youth of different backgrounds and identities to ensure they are relevant and accessible to the young people they seek to support.

2. LGBTQ+ teens reported higher rates of experiences involving nudes and online sexual interactions.

Online sexual exploration is not unique to LGBTQ+ youth — far from it; however, LGBTQ+ teens report distinctly higher rates of these experiences. LGBTQ+ teens may have less opportunity to meet and engage with other LGBTQ+ youth in their offline communities or may not feel their sexual orientation or gender identity would be supported.

While online sexual exploration may feel at times safer than offline exploration, particularly for LGBTQ+ youth, risks exist all the same. The historical risks communicated in sex education talks are no longer confined to physical consequences like pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases, but now include navigating a host of new concerns, such as the influence of adult pornography, sexting with strangers, grooming, and the non-consensual distribution of nude content. In addition to the personal wellbeing and safety of minors using the internet to explore their sexuality, some of these experiences can also carry legal consequences.

What should we do?

Safeguarding young people as they navigate sexual development in a digital age means equipping them with the understanding and awareness of the risks associated with online sexual encounters — as well as the tools to respond effectively. Conversations should not just focus on “just don’t do it”. They must occur early, must be clear in the risks and how to navigate them, and must include an open and judgment-free door for support should risk turn to danger.

3. Cisgender non-hetero male teens reported higher rates of risky encounters and attempt to handle unsafe situations alone more than other teens.

This survey points to a concerning gap between the level of risky experiences among cisgender non-hetero male teens and the likelihood to seek help when in danger. These teens report greater rates of online exploration and sexual interactions and are the most likely to try and handle feeling unsafe online by themselves. As we continue to improve the onset, frequency, and quality of conversations relating to online risks, we need to ensure we’re meeting these young people, in particular, in a way that resonates with their attitudes and needs.

What should we do?

There’s a critical need to increase investment in research among under-represented populations, including, but not limited to LGBTQ+ youth. Research serving this group, along with youth of color, and neurodiverse youth, are just a few of the areas needing further attention. General surveys, while valuable to understand the “big picture”, often fail to offer sufficient data to explore the experiences of smaller populations. Indeed, even in this research, which was designed specifically to develop a deeper understanding of the experiences and needs of LGBTQ+ youth, sample sizes remained small for many communities — particularly trans, non-binary, or other noncisgender youth. New research should intentionally seek to explore the experiences and perspectives of underrepresented groups to ensure interventions and responses are inclusive, relevant, and effective for all youth.

4. Offline relationships – such as with caregivers and friends – are the preferred people to turn to when young people feel unsafe, including for LGBTQ+ youth.

Online spaces and relationships are increasingly a part of young people’s lives, a place where they feel they can be themselves. This was a sentiment particularly strong for LGBTQ+ youth. And yet, regardless of sexual orientation or gender, there is greater trust in the advice and support from offline relationships than those made online. It is important to remember that the potential for online connection for those who don’t currently feel seen or connected in their offline worlds, while valuable, does not abdicate the communities around young people from rising to meet the needs of all in an open and supportive way.

Importantly, conversations about the online risks young people face are not the sole responsibility of parents/caregivers. In fact, for some not ready or able to talk to a caregiver about sensitive coming-of-age topics, a friend can be an important source of support. Indeed, LGBTQ+ teens – more often than their non-LGBTQ+ peers – already turn to friends for support as they navigate unwanted or potentially harmful sexual interactions online.

What should we do?

Conversations on challenging subjects such as sexual exploration and risky behavior can be harder to initiate, less open, and less direct than those that occur between young people and their peers. As the quality and timing of conversations with caregivers continue to improve, we should recognize the inherent value of friend groups as non-parental influences in young people’s lives.

Programming and resources that seek to inform and encourage conversations on subjects such as sexting, grooming, and non-consensual resharing should include bystander audiences. Not only will this increase the chances of a young person having someone in their lives ready and willing to discuss these topics, it offers an indirect means of empowering young people. Messaging focused on the support of friends or other bystanders can inform personal safety practices, and may be better received when viewed through the lens of protecting a friend, as opposed to only oneself.


Final thoughts

The need to develop platforms, tools, and programming that ensures online spaces are safe for all young people is vital. LGBTQ+ youth are using technology to explore their sexuality and connect with new people in a way that is not exclusive to them; however, it is happening for them at higher rates.

Platform safety tools are a popular first line of defense in risky situations, but they are not a substitute for human support. Sadly, the availability and quality of human support is far from uniform, leaving too many isolated and trying to process harm alone. Diversifying the sources and types of support available may make an important dent in the number of young people who currently feel without a safe place to turn when navigating a risky online encounter.

The internet offers the ability to curate our experiences and communities — both to increase the good and decrease the bad – in a way we cannot as easily offline. This is uniquely relevant for LGBTQ+ youth. In the face of this, we must speak directly to the risks they are sure to be navigating and ensure they have access to open and non-judgmental spaces to turn for support.

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Suggested Citation:

Thorn. (2023). LGBTQ+ Youth Perspectives: How LGBTQ+ youth are navigating exploration and risks of sexual exploitation online.

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