Abstract: Finding Escape, Belonging, and Hope Online: A Grounded Theory Study of Transgender Youths' Internet Engagement (Society for Social Work and Research 23rd Annual Conference - Ending Gender Based, Family and Community Violence)

Finding Escape, Belonging, and Hope Online: A Grounded Theory Study of Transgender Youths' Internet Engagement

Friday, January 18, 2019: 9:45 AM
Union Square 17 Tower 3, 4th Floor (Hilton San Francisco)
* noted as presenting author
Ashley Austin, PhD, Associate Professor, Barry University, Miami Shores, FL
Shelley Craig, PhD, Associate Dean & Associate Professor, University of Toronto, Toronto, ON, Canada
Lauren McInroy, PhD, Assistant Professor, The Ohio State University, OH
Sandra D'Souza, Master's Student, University of Toronto, Toronto, ON, Canada
Background:  Transgender and gender diverse (TGD) youth experience pervasive stigma, discrimination and violence in their homes, schools, and communities (Goldblum et al., 2012), contributing to disproportionate rates of psychological distress. For example, half of all TGD youth experience elevated suicidality (Haas et al., 2014). Conversely social connection, a sense of belonging, and hope, as well as the ability to live authentically promote health and protect TGD individuals against suicide risks (Grossman et al., 2018). Emergent evidence suggests that access to the Internet, and a broad range of internet-enabled information and communication technologies (ICT), may offer TGD youth a sense of safety and community largely unavailable in their offline contexts (Cannon et al., 2017). This qualitative inquiry explores TGD youths’ perceptions of the impact of ICT involvement on their lives.

Methods: Data were extracted from a mixed methods, online study of LGBTQ+ youth (N=6309) from across the United States and Canada (March–July 2016).  Participants for this study are the TGD sub-sample (n=260) who provided written responses to an optional survey item inquiring about the role of ICTs in their lives. Participants were 14–29 (x̄=18.30) and active online (92% spent 2+ hours online daily). Participants were most active on: YouTube (77%), Facebook (77%), Tumblr (67%), Snapchat (52%), and Instagram (48%). Nearly half of TGD participants (48%) selected multiple gender identity labels. Over 75% of this sub-sample identified with a non-binary or genderqueer identity. 

Data were analyzed using grounded theory strategies (Charmaz, 2014) including line-by-line and thematic coding, constant comparison and eventually focused coding. Theoretical sampling (Charmaz, 2014) was used to explore and refine emergent categories to develop more incisive concepts that were firmly rooted in the data. 

Findings: Data revealed that involvement with ICTs represented a highly important component of participants’ lives. Participant narratives consistently indicated that involvement with ICT’s served a life sustaining purpose during particularly difficult periods of adolescence and young adulthood. The following core concepts illustrate how youth engaged ICTs in a manner that enabled them to find safety in online spaces in a way they were not able to in their offline lives: (1) being affirmed as authentic self, (2) escaping stigma and violence, (3) experiencing a sense of belonging, (4) feeling hope, and (5) reciprocal support. Data explicitly revealed how these online experiences served to deter youth from taking their own lives.

Conclusions and Implications:  The Internet has revolutionized the experience of navigating a TGD identity during adolescence by creating access to identity affirming support and connection. Affirming online experiences and relationships appear to mitigate the impact of rejection, bullying and violence often experienced by TGD youth offline. Engaging and connecting with supportive others through ICTs were credited with saving participants from the depths of despair and suicidality. The unique and innovative ways in which participants used online spaces to create a sense of belonging and build mutual support offer important insights to inform social work prevention and intervention programs aimed at removing barriers to well-being for TGD youth.