How much screen time is too much is frequently up for debate. Parents, media, and educators all chime in on whether screen time is bad or neutral, but it’s rare to see an opinion claiming screen time for tweens and teens is a net good.
Enter Amber Leventry to argue in the Washington Post that for LGBTQ kids, screen time is a necessity. Leventry, a 39-year-old transgender person, believes social media is a place for LGBTQ kids to find community. Yet LGBTQ youth shouldn’t be singled out with a pass to partake in harmful activities just because of their identifiers.
We all spend too much time on our phones. They are extensions of our hands. We all worry we’re not adequately experiencing reality. Writing this, I am sitting outside my kid’s piano lesson trying to avoid talking tothe other parents by appearing incredibly absorbed by my screen. Retreats and spa getaways insist people stay off their phones, and every day, social media is filled with posts admonishing fellow users for staying too long enraptured by virtuality.
Every few months, the debate surfaces again in major media outlets about the effects of screen time on children and teens. ABC reported that “as digital media use has increased among teens who are part of Generation Z, aptly dubbed iGen, so have their feelings of loneliness and depression.” The Washington Post detailed a study showing that “adolescents’ psychological well-being decreased the more hours a week they spent on screens, including with the Internet, social media, texting, gaming and video chats. The findings jibe with earlier studies linking frequent screen use to teenage depression and anxiety.”
So why should this behavior be encouraged for kids who venture beyond heteronormativity? Presumably, these early reports didn’t study the effects of screen time and social media separately for LGBTQ youth versus heteronormative youth. The findings were for kids across the board. Sending LGBTQ kids down the rabbit hole of social media with the idea that it’s the only place they can find community sets them up for failure.
The world of social media is not reality. Instead, it is a collection of constructed fictions designed to elicit likes from viewers.
Screens Hurt LGBTQ Kids the Same as Everyone Else
Leventry posits that because lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, and nonbinary youth have so few peers who share their identity, they have to take to online realms for connection. She writes:
Vanessa Lee Nic, an advocate and the mother to a 10-year-old transgender son named Dylan, allows her son a private and heavily monitored Instagram account. ‘Being 10 and being trans can feel lonely,’ she says. ‘He doesn’t have one trans friend his age in our small town. So, this allows him that community. It’s pretty invaluable, honestly.’
While so many parents struggle with how much screen time is the right amount, the idea is that parents of non-gender-conforming kids should give their children access to social media to reinforce their identities. Those peers Leventry cited include famous and influential LGBTQ people.
“Popular Instagram figures such as Jazz Jennings, Aydian Dowling, and Rebekah Bruesehoff are showing the world — and other transgender youth and young adults — the power and joy of living authentic lives. Kids like Dylan, and parents like his mom, appreciate the willingness of others to be the positive representation LGBTQ folks so sorely need,” she writes.
Youth in general are being steered away from putting too much stock in social media, as it gives them a false sense of what really matters. But she recommends LGBTQ youth be allowed broader access to what’s being shown on the platforms, simply by virtue of their sexual or gender identities. Don’t these kids need just as much protection from overpaid narcissistic influencers as every heterosexual kid? Why should LGBTQ social media personalities be considered a good influence when they are part of the exact same image-affirmation economy as their heteronormative peers?
Aspirational Instagram Images Don’t Offer Community
Girls have been specifically warned away from Instagram and social media because the images they see from top posters become aspirational for them. Those beautiful, model-perfect images that were once the purview of fashion magazines and high celebrity now come on social media platforms from those who are seeking fame as well and have attained it. Girls want what the influencers are peddling.
Writing in Forbes, Nicole Fisher points out some of the dangers of girls seeking too much affirmation on Instagram:
Compared to Twitter, Facebook or YouTube, it appears that Instagram leads to more comparisons between ourselves and others. This, in turn, contributes to more anxiety and depression due to feelings of inadequacy. Research suggests this is due to increased exposure to ‘idealized’ images of other women, couples, and lives in general. Increased exposure is linked to decreased happiness with one’s own life.
If it’s not ideal for girls to spend so much time online soaking up aspirational images for how to “better” themselves, why is it the right thing for any youth at all?
Tumblr and Instagram are both full of accounts that groom young people to appear a certain way. Simply because LGBTQ accounts that direct people how to look and morph their appearance are speaking to non-gender-conforming youth doesn’t make them better representations of reality nor adequate places for teens to find camaraderie and friendship. Accounts that instruct children on how to lose weight, not for health reasons but to achieve a look, are not safe places for kids.
Funneling kids into an online lifestyle negates the very real possibility that like-minded kids exist within their real-life communities. It also separates them from people who can be their friends regardless of the kids’ sexuality. The thing to do is not squirrel up with a screen in their bedroom, but rather to join groups where there are other kids.
Turning off the outside world and turning to virtuality for understanding creates more problems than it solves. Online personalities are curated and perfected for the utmost impact. Aspiring to be like those users is as damaging for LGBTQ kids as it is for girls who try to look like supermodels and engage in damaging behavior to attain the look.
Social media is not a safe space for kids to go in search of friends or an image, and it’s certainly not more viable for LGBTQ kids, who in their isolation are more vulnerable to predation and influence, not less.