The Women Change Worlds blog of the Wellesley Centers for Women (WCW) encourages WCW scholars and colleagues to respond to current news and events; disseminate research findings, expertise, and commentary; and both pose and answer questions about issues that put women's perspectives and concerns at the center of the discussion.

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On(line) Identity: Social Media is Essential for LGBTQ Youth

Teen uses smartphone while sitting on couch

This piece was written by Carolyn Bacaj and Mikhaela Andersonn, students at Wellesley College who recently took a Calderwood Seminar on public writing taught by WCW Senior Research Scientist Linda Charmaraman, Ph.D. As young adult members of the LGBTQ+ community, Carolyn and Mikhaela are passionate about identifying support networks for sexual minority groups and creating safe spaces for younger members of the community.

When Mikhaela was younger, she and her friends found themselves spending tons of time online. Through their usage of social media—typically websites that their peers weren’t on, like Tumblr—they discovered parts of their identity after being exposed to communities that gave them room to explore. Mikhaela ended up coming out as queer in the 7th grade, and she believes that without the assistance of social media as an outlet for expression and exploration, the process of discovering her identity would have been harder.

Mikhaela’s personal experiences with social media mirror the experiences of LGBTQ+ youth in a recent study of over 1000 students ages 10-16 by Dr. Charmaraman and her colleagues in the Youth, Media & Wellbeing Research Lab. The study found that LGBTQ+ youth use social media differently than their peers for reasons unique to their sexual minority identities. While privacy and bullying are concerns, social media is an integral part of their lives.

How do LGBTQ+ youth use social media differently?

There are key differences in how LGBTQ+ youth use social media versus how their peers may use it, including:

  • Spending more time online exploring their identity
  • Being less likely to have their accounts private
  • Being less likely to have friends and family on their social media pages
  • Being more likely to use social media websites that their parents disapprove of

These differences highlight the idea that social media plays a different role for LGBTQ+ youth by being a more integral part of their identity development.

With a little guidance from their families and teachers, LGBTQ+ youth can maintain close-knit online communities that help them develop their identities and improve their mental health.

Why is examining these differences important?

Social technologies are essential tools for guiding LGBTQ+ youth toward identity development and supportive communities of peers. According to Dr. Charmaraman’s study, adolescents who identify as sexual minorities are more likely to experience depression, loneliness, and isolation. With nearly half of LGBTQ youth having no one to talk to about their sexuality, this isolation is only compounded by confusion and fear about their identity. As someone from West Virginia, where there is little LGBTQ+ presence and rampant homophobia, it was difficult for Carolyn to navigate her identity without external support from the community she had grown up in.

Still, we understand the internet can be a scary place for children and teens. Since sexual minorities are more likely to view self-harm content, it’s unsurprising that they are twice as likely to have attempted self harm. This might make parents or educators nervous to encourage LGBTQ+ adolescents to use social technologies. But regardless of what teens see online, they’re not going to stop using tech—and they shouldn't.

How can the internet be a safe haven for LGBTQ+ youth?

By finding LGBTQ+ groups online, adolescents can find peers who relate to them. According to Dr. Charmaraman’s study, sexual minority adolescents more often join online communities to combat loneliness. They can find friends to talk to about things that their heterosexual peers don’t understand, such as family acceptance, lack of representation, paranoia over being outed, and internalized homophobia. It makes sense that sexual minority youth are more likely to have friends they only know through the internet. Finding this social support is essential, as it’s the most protective factor against negative mental health outcomes like depression and loneliness.

The online atmosphere is changing and becoming more accepting of the LGBTQ+ community. Platforms like Tumblr and TikTok have fostered LGBTQ+ youth voices, becoming safe havens. The Trevor Project, the largest suicide prevention and crisis intervention organization for LGBTQ+ youth, has over two million followers on Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook. The internet is a resource that has built-in anonymity and widespread access for teens living in areas that aren’t as accepting. These online communities are particularly essential in supporting youth when in-person communities aren’t available, as access to identity-affirming spaces lowers rates of suicide. According to Dr. Charmaraman’s study, LGBTQ+ adolescents are more likely to find online friends significantly more supportive than in-person ones. Finding LGBTQ+ friends online means opportunities to find positive role models and support in coming out.

How can I support an LGBTQ+ adolescent in my life?

With a little guidance from their families and teachers, LGBTQ+ youth can maintain close-knit online communities that help them develop their identities and improve their mental health. Here are some tips:

  • Talk to LGBTQ+ adolescents in your life about how to recognize depression.
  • Discuss the risks of being online.
  • Talk about their online communities and support.
  • If online support isn’t enough, check out school-based or community-based resources (i.e., gay-straight alliances, organizations like Out MetroWest).
  • If applicable, connect them to an LGBTQ+ family member or community member who may be able to advocate for them or provide mentorship.
  • Check out these organizations that support LGBTQ+ youth.

Carolyn Bacaj is a member of the Wellesley College Class of 2023 majoring in education and biology. Mikhaela Andersonn is also a member of the Class of 2023 and is majoring in psychology and Spanish.

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Internship Reflection: Building Knowledge Together About Our Digital Worlds

Rachel Hodes, Wellesley College graduate

As a Class of 1967 intern at the Wellesley Centers for Women, I had the opportunity to spend the past year working with Dr. Linda Charmaraman in the Youth, Media, and Wellbeing Research Lab. I worked on a wide range of projects; while all were focused around adolescent health and social media use, our research asked more specifically about sleep, mental illness, pets, activism, gaming, identity, and a whole host of other topics, many of which have been largely unexplored in the landscapes of both health and digital media research.

My internship challenged me to think critically about the unanswered questions we still have about social media. As someone on the cusp of the millennial/Gen Z divide, I relate to so many of the ways adolescents today use technology. Growing up, I also went online and to social media platforms to learn about myself and the world, to make new friends, and to engage with issues I cared about.

On the other hand, the internet is such a constantly evolving space that it’s hard to reconcile just how different the experiences of today’s early adolescents might be from my own—and that’s why the chance to learn about these experiences from many different angles was so exciting and eye-opening. Being able to analyze qualitative survey responses from LGBTQ+ youth, or watch the videos from the favorite YouTube channels respondents shared with us, has given me new insight into the reality of the media most popular among adolescents today, and the ways they navigate interactions with parents, peers, and strangers in online environments.


. . . publication in a journal was a reminder for me of one of the main reasons research matters in the first place: to share findings with a broader audience and spur informed discussion about a topic.

I also had the opportunity to collect data directly. In 2019, I went into middle schools with the lab and oversaw students taking our survey, and more recently I interviewed parents of middle schoolers about their pets, loneliness during the pandemic, and wellbeing. At the other end of the research process, having an article I co-authored published, using the data our lab collected about LGBTQ+ adolescents’ online activity, was so rewarding. Because I’d experienced so many different phases of the research process during my time with the lab, that work coming to fruition with publication in a journal was a reminder for me of one of the main reasons research matters in the first place: to share findings with a broader audience and spur informed discussion about a topic.

Ultimately, one of my biggest takeaways from studying social media use in adolescence has come from examining our lab’s findings alongside other new research on emerging social technologies. While my internship has come to an end, I’m currently diving into past scholarship on YouTube and learning which trends match our data and which differ.

Because social media can offer adolescents such a powerful outlet for self-expression and learning, while simultaneously increasing feelings of loneliness, isolation, and anxiety, it’s often impossible to come to a definite conclusion about whether the benefits outweigh the risks. Even if we could, it’s pretty clear that social media is here to stay, especially for young people, whether we like it or not—but what we can do is collaborate and build knowledge together about the digital worlds that are increasingly intertwined with our offline lives. It was an honor to be able to add my voice to that conversation, and I can’t wait to bring the inquisitive and analytical mindset that being a research assistant has taught me into my next adventure.


Rachel Hodes graduated from Wellesley College in 2021 with a degree in Sociology. They received the Class of 1967 Internship at the Wellesley Centers for Women for the 2020-2021 academic year to conduct research with Dr. Linda Charmaraman. During their internship, they co-authored an academic journal article that was published in JMIR Mental Health. After graduation, they moved to Savannah, Georgia, to work as a community organizer.

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A Personal Story on International Migrants Day

Ninotska Love At Wellesley CollegeToday, it is almost impossible not to talk about immigration and what that represents to every single individual in our nation. As an immigrant transgender woman who was granted asylum during the Obama administration, it breaks my heart to see many people seeking help at the borders, but not getting it. My experience, perhaps, is very different from other immigrants, but we all share the same commonality—the hope to build a better future for ourselves and the future of our loved ones.

I left Ecuador based on the persecution of my gender identity. In Ecuador, I was kidnapped and told: “I deserved to die for being who I was.”  I still remember leaving my hometown, Guayaquil, in the middle of the night, saying goodbye to my brothers and my mom with tears in my eyes. I knew that I would not have the opportunity to see them anytime soon, perhaps never again! I took an airplane from Guayaquil to Mexico City.

Once in Mexico City, I was greeted and hosted by a beautiful family. Everyone there was so welcoming and supportive of my journey. We went to a small fair in the town so I could get familiarized with and introduced to their community and business. I walked around on my own and tried to order something from a store but realized that my Spanish was different from theirs. I remember crying non-stop. For a second, I regretted my decision, but I knew I could not go back. My life was at risk back home, so I continued with my journey. 

After a few weeks in Mexico City, I traveled to Aguas Calientes, then to Nuevo Laredo, located on the border between Mexico and the U.S.In Nuevo Laredo, I joined a group of people also seeking asylum and together we successfully crossed the border. Once in Laredo, Texas, we stayed in a hotel room—more than a dozen people in a space that was meant for two guests. We celebrated as if it was our own crossing every time we learned someone else was able to pass the checkpoint, because we knew that those people would eventually have a better future for themselves and their families.

Now, when I passed the immigration checkpoint, I thought I made it, but new challenges were about to start. I faced two barriers common among immigrants: I did not speak English nor did I have U.S. residency. Every story, however, differs from individual to individual. After a few weeks in the country, I started attending a local church that provided free classes in English. That improved my English, so I continued with the classes and started reading and watching English-language television shows.

Three years later, with the help of a pro-bono lawyer, Jhon Sanchez, I was able to apply and obtain asylum to stay in the U.S. When I gained legal status, I started my transition from male to female. Finally, I would become the woman that I always felt myself to be. After my transition, I decided to go back to school to start my life all over again. In 2015, I attended LaGuardia Community College in New York. There, I was treated and recognized as a woman, and no longer had to fear being sent back home. These have been the most rewarding experiences in my life.

For a while now, I have been able to work, study, and continue helping my family from afar. Currently, I am attending Wellesley College, as one of the first openly transgender woman ever accepted to the school. But none of this would have been possible without the vast amount of support I have received over the past few years, from my mom, brothers, family, friends, mentors, professors, and people who have provided their solidarity to me. I am just one example of what, with the support of others and one’s own will, someone can accomplish. I am hopeful that our government can move more positively for the future of many immigrants and their families seeking asylum, for a more inclusive and accepting society. We, as immigrants, matter and all we need are opportunities to demonstrate that we are capable of contributing and thriving, free of oppression and violence. We all should have equal opportunities to succeed!

Ninotska Love is a Women’s and Gender Studies major at Wellesley College. December 17th marks International Migrants Day.

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Views expressed on the Women Change Worlds blog are those of the authors and do not represent the views of the Wellesley Centers for Women or Wellesley College nor have they been authorized or endorsed by Wellesley College.

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