A new normal for LGBTQ+ youth

Researcher Shelley L. Craig has spent decades advocating for LGBTQ+ youth. Her research shows how social media is a lifeline to those growing up queer
Roberta Staley
University of Toronto
Social work
A graphic of five people holding mobile devices with a cloud of icons denoting various online activities and genders above their heads
The main researcher of the article and a mascot in a baseball field.

As the 2014 co-chair of WorldPride, an international event that promotes lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer issues, Shelley Craig threw out the first pitch at a Toronto Blue Jays game during Toronto Pride.

Image courtesy of the Toronto Blue Jays

When one thinks of “continuum of care,” online games and videos aren’t the first things to come to mind. But for Shelley L. Craig, who has created such a continuum for integrated support offline, these are all part of a vast range of initiatives she’s helping to create to help LGBTQ+ youth navigate the difficult and sometimes treacherous landscape of growing up queer.

Craig is a professor and researcher in the Factor-Inwentash Faculty of Social Work as well as Canada Research Chair for Sexual and Gender Minority Youth at the University of Toronto. In 2019, she embarked upon an initiative involving 40 international academic partners embracing a host of regional and international projects that fall under the International Partnership for Queer Youth Resilience initiative, or INQYR.

A seven-year undertaking, INQYR received a $2.5 million grant in 2017 from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC). In February 2020, the CFI contributed $80,000 to support a Digital Resilience MultiMedia Lab that will include a high-performance computer, video cameras and software editing equipment.

With that technology in place, says Craig, the lab is creating “resilience enhancement products” to provide LGBTQ+ youth tools to improve their own well-being and to advocate for LGBTQ+ rights in their communities. These could be as simple as videos of queer youth telling their own story, games that teach coping skills, or infographics to help advocate for a gay-straight alliance at school, or as sophisticated as an artificial intelligence-powered chat bot for LGBTQ+ youth.

Online resources for LGBTQ+ youth fill an important need, says Craig, especially in the absence of sufficient offline services and during the uncertainty of a pandemic that cuts them off from many of their support systems and typical coping mechanisms. “LGBTQ+ youth are going online and creating communities and building their own resilience. That has a positive impact on their mental health and wellbeing.”

A blue banner with the Research Facility Navigator white logo on the right and a white text on the left promoting the inclusion of this story's research initiative in the Navigator's website.

An academic career built on making things better for LGBTQ+ youth

Craig’s advocacy is rooted in an academic career in social work that she describes as a “mix between helping people where they are, advocating for and with them and fighting to make things better in the systems they inhabit.”

Coming from an Ontario family of modest means meant that Craig always had to work full-time while pursuing undergraduate and graduate degrees in the United States. She worked in settings that complemented her studies, such as hospital emergency wards and a shelter for domestic violence survivors. It was in 1998, when she became director of an organization supporting LGBTQ+ youth that Craig became keenly aware of the dire lack of resources for this cohort — and decided to do something about it.

What LBGTQ+ youth and those experiencing domestic violence have in common

Hear Shelley Craig describe how her experience as lead case manager in a domestic violence shelter helped her advocate for LGBTQ+ youth in the late 90s ​
2 minutes, 20 seconds to listen

[CRAIG] I do have to say that transitioning from working with victims of violence in a domestic violence shelter was similar to working with LGBT youth because so many of them have been victims of violence, certainly discrimination, abuse, a much higher likelihood of adverse childhood events of any kind.

And even though at that point we didn't have the data, we certainly did have the practice-based data and the clinical information. And so that thinking from the lens of safety and protection became one of the things that I, that I transported with me.

But something that was different when working with LGBT youth was when I would tell people I worked with women who had been abused by their partners and talked about working in the shelter, people sort of understood it was a common … there was a common understanding that this is something that shouldn't happen. And when I was working with, specifically when I first started working with LGBT youth back in 1998 essentially, I still had to make the case that LGBT youth deserved to be safe and didn't deserve to be beaten, that they weren't asking for it, that they just didn't have to straighten up.

It was this interesting thing. At least — it doesn't really make it any better — but at least there's a bit of a social norm that domestic violence was something that was taboo and shouldn't happen, even though it does happen. At that point, it was really overt that, oh, you know, it's probably better for these LGBT kids, or we just called them gay kids at that point, but for these gay kids to be dead or, you know, parents would often say to kids, I wish you were a murderer instead of being gay. And they were constantly being kicked out and I was constantly trying to help, you know, figure out safe places for them to be. So there were some common elements I think that I transported with me. And then there were some other elements, the advocacy elements that I really had to continue to develop in terms of my skillset to be able to, I think really actively represent and support the young people that I was so lucky to work with.

LGBTQ+ youth are vulnerable to violence

Craig says that LGBTQ+ youngsters’ vulnerability to homelessness and violence led her to an examination of how queer youth create their own social support structures, which is the foundation of INQYR.

The international group of researchers who have joined her have begun to investigate the ways that LGBTQ+ youth use communication technologies to support their own mental health and wellbeing.

LGBTQ+ youth and young adults often “feel safer online,” says Craig. “They’re going through a whole developmental process online, trying out identities and building networks. For many, their strongest supports and friendships are online and that directly and positively impacts their mental health and resilience. And that’s not a bad thing, as there are so few services for them in most parts of Canada.”

Smart phones and social can be lifesavers for LGBTQ+ youth

Hear Shelley Craig describe how our modern ways of communicating have become critical tools for helping LGBTQ+ youth find their community
3 minutes, 34 seconds to listen

[CRAIG] LGBTQ+ youth are more likely to have a smart phone than anybody else. About 95 or 96 percent of LGBT youth have smart phones. What we do know about the youth that are homeless is they always have a smart phone. So it may not be a fancy smart phone and they go to different organizations and different services like Starbucks to get WiFi. So that is almost the best way to get a hold of any young person, is through their smart phone.

We've learned from a number of young people that we've worked with that when they're feeling depressed or when they're feeling suicidal, they will interact on their social media and they will get a lot of love and support from their friends on social media and that will in fact help them feel better.

So young people are not calling a crisis hotline like they used to. They're in fact turning to social media to get love and support and advice. Of course there's limitations to that. But that's an interesting trend.

As part of the SSHRC study that we call the Project Query, we did an online study of a little over 6,000 LGBT youth in Canada and the U.S. One of the things we learned when we just recently did an analysis of the transgender and gender nonconforming youth was essentially how lifesaving their social media was to them. That in fact, having Instagram saved their life.

And of course it's not the Instagram itself, it's who Instagram connects to them to. People who make them feel valued, give them social support, help them make choices and navigate the challenges of their daily lives because they talk these things through with them on social media, whether it's an individual chat or sometimes putting it out broadly.

Because there's a real collective spirit I think that is often found online. Of course there's a lot of negativity and most research talks about all the negative aspects of information, communication technologies, particularly for youth. But one of the reasons that I decided to pursue this research is because it was not true in the same way for LGBTQ.

When we started our “I will survive” study, which was maybe it'd be 2010, and we were trying to understand the influence of more media messages on LGBT youth, it was different even then. I mean, we had smartphones, but they weren't as omnipresent I think as they are now. And even then, the way that young people talked about the media was very much it's a one-way conversation, right? So they're essentially consumers of media. What we've seen since then is a way for young people to be part of the conversation and also become producers as well as consumers. So they're also able to shape the messages that they hear and respond to them as well as creating their own messages.

International effort to advocate for the rights of LGBTQ+ youth

Craig’s colleague, U of T PhD candidate Andrew Eaton, who is research director of INQYR as well as project manager of the Digital Resilience MultiMedia Lab, says that INQYR will not only enhance knowledge about the lives of LGBTQ+ youth but elevate their human rights stature on a global scale.

“Craig is a trailblazer in terms of queer youth rights and research,” says Eaton. He adds that her reputation and extensive scholarship anchored international collaboration among research partners in Mexico, the United Kingdom, Hong Kong, Australia and the United States. This will increase the potential impact of the project, says Eaton.

A vector graphic of a laptop with a paper airplane flying over it on a teal background encouraging you to subscribe to our newsletter.

Meaningful change for LGBTQ+ youth happens on both personal and societal levels

Craig says she hopes her research will make an impact on multiple levels. “We need to do two things at the same time. We have to immediately do what we can to help a young person cope better with the everyday stressors of being a queer young person in today's society, because it's still incredibly challenging,” she says. “And we also need to shift the political, family and religious structures that can lead to additional stressors for LGBTQ+ young people. We can't just look at the individual level because we need to create change so that it's a better world in 10 years for LGBTQ+ youth than it is for them now.”