The Society for Social Work and Research

2014 Annual Conference

January 15-19, 2014 I Grand Hyatt San Antonio I San Antonio, TX

“It Gave Me Hope”: Can Online Media Facilitate the Resilience of Sexual Minority Youth?

Saturday, January 18, 2014: 11:30 AM
HBG Convention Center, Room 002B River Level (San Antonio, TX)
* noted as presenting author
Shelley L. Craig, PhD, LCSW, Assistant Professor, University of Toronto, Toronto, ON
Lauren McInroy, MSW, Doctoral Student and Research Coordinator, University of Toronto, Toronto, ON, Canada
Purpose: Contemporary North American adolescents are coming of age in a rapidly expanding media environment with the integration of online media (e.g. websites, social networking, blogging) throughout the social milieu. In 2012, 96% of youth 14-17 were online in the United States (Pew Internet & American Life Project, 2013). Online media may be particularly important for sexual minority youth [SMY] because of the extensive risks they face in offline life (Craig & Smith, 2011; Alexander & Losh, 2010). Although resiliency research focused on SMY has increased (Davis, Saltzburg, & Locke, 2009), the influence of online media on their development remains virtually unaddressed.  Drawing from resiliency theory, this study explored the ways online media informed SMY participants identities and resilience.

Methods: The study utilized an in-depth, grounded theory strategy to generate a rich qualitative understanding of SMY youth and online media. Inclusion criteria included sexual minority identification and utilization of a minimum of four types of new media platforms. The study adhered to an Institutional Research Board protocol and participants received gift cards as incentives. Audio and video-recorded interviews (n=19) of 1–3 hours in length (total 36 hours) were conducted. The semi-structured interview protocol utilized open-ended questions (e.g. how do you use online media? Has media helped you helped you overcome obstacles or barriers in your life?). Following interview completion, ATLAS.ti 6 was utilized to facilitate coding with seven independent coders using grounded theory strategies (Charmaz, 2006). Open and axial coding of categories led to the identification and ordering of concepts, generation of categories, and eventually development of themes (Patton, 2002).  To facilitate rigor as well as methodological soundness, trustworthiness measures were employed (Lincoln & Guba, 1985), including prolonged engagement, peer debriefing, thick description, and an audit trail.

Results: Participants, ranging in age from 18-22, clearly identified the benefits of online media for SMY youth. Specifically, online media provided them with opportunities to: (1) seek out the SMY-specific support, (2) feel empowered, (3) participate in social action, and (4) foster diverse sexual minority communities. In particular, participants noted the ability to negotiate identities in the relatively anonymous spaces provided by online media. The support, empowerment and connections accessed via online media fostered participants’ opportunities for identity exploration and development, as well as their resiliency to adverse circumstances by allowing them to select peer networks and opportunities for engagement. Crucially, for participants these online activities were inextricably integrated with their offline experiences, directly challenging the antiquated assumption of a dichotomy between online and offline experiences in the lives of contemporary youth.

Implications: This study highlighted often complex interrelation of online and offline experiences for SMY as well as the opportunities provided by online media for identity development and enhancement of their resiliency and well-being. The implications for social work research and practice with SMY will be discussed.