LGBTQ+ youth experience considerable identity-related prejudice and discrimination, including disproportionate exposure to overt forms of online violence (e.g., cyberbullying). However, there is an absence of literature exploring covert and subtle types of online prejudice—including digital microaggressions. Microaggressions are common “verbal, behavioral, or environmental indignities... slights and insults” (Nadal, 2008, p.23) which communicate hostility toward individuals from oppressed groups. Discrimination in this context can negatively affect an individual’s health and general well-being, potentially leading to disengaging coping strategies, and ultimately to health and social disparities. Digital microaggressions denigrate or exclude via digital audio, video, text, images etc. in formats including symbols, epithets, disparagement, intentional misinformation, and stereotyping. This study investigated LGBTQ+ adolescents’ and young adults’ exposure to digital microaggressions and the subsequent effects of such exposure.
LGBTQ+ youth (n = 1804) aged 14–24 from the United States, the United Kingdom, and Canada were recruited via social media ads and completed an online mixed-methods survey. This included reviewing sample digital microaggressions from various social media platforms (e.g., Twitter, Facebook) and answering three open-ended questions to develop a better understanding of the psychophysiological impacts: (a) “How do these posts make you feel mentally and emotionally?”; (b) “How do these posts make you feel physically?”; and (c) “How do these posts make you feel about being an LGBTQ+ person?” Two independent coders analyzed all responses using the stages of thematic analysis. Additional research team members engaged with the coders in multiple validation processes to ensure the accuracy of the analysis.
Three overarching themes emerged: (1) psychological impacts (e.g., depression, anxiety); (2) physical impacts (e.g., headaches, pain); and (3) LGBTQ+ specific impacts (e.g., internalized stigma). Participants shared psychological responses directed externally towards those committing digital microaggressions (e.g., anger, hostility) and directed internally towards themselves (e.g., sadness, self-loathing). Many indicated troubling feelings of emotional or cognitive numbness due to the frequency of microaggression exposure. Participants frequently reported various physical effects, including visceral reactions to perceived threats (e.g., increased heart rates, changes in breathing), stress or tension (e.g., headaches), and physical pain (e.g., stomachaches). Finally, participants described how digital microaggressions impacted their self-image as a LGBTQ+ person. This included feelings of shame, insecurity, and fear others may harm them for being LGBTQ+. Although many participants reported worsened self-image, a proportion conversely indicated digital microaggressions evoked a sense of pride in them as a LGBTQ+ person and a motivation to advocate for themselves and others in their community.
Conclusions and Implications:
Findings highlight the multidimensional impacts of exposure to digital microaggressions on LGBTQ+ youth related to their psychological and physical health, as well as their sense of themselves as a developing LGBTQ+ young person. Such findings are critical for socially just social work practice, as research shows LGBTQ+ youth are more active online than their non-LGBTQ+ peers and may be particularly suitable for innovative digital intervention efforts. Future research should examine how exposure to prejudice via online platforms—particularly social media (e.g., Snapchat, TikTok)—may impact LGBTQ+ youths’ health and identity.