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: Studying the Power of Social Media in a Pandemic

Emily Zhai

Last fall, as the COVID-19 pandemic continued to wreak havoc in the U.S. and across the world, the class of 2021 carried on attending Wellesley but in a fragmented way for our senior year. We attended our remote classes on Zoom and connected with friends through FaceTime or other forms of social media. And without really any choice, our entire lives had become entirely dependent on social technology.

I was fortunate enough to become a research assistant at the beginning of my senior year at the Wellesley Centers for Women in the Youth, Media & Wellbeing Research Lab under Dr. Linda Charmaraman. This position gave me the opportunity to reflect upon the tumultuous year and how we have used forms of social media to build community, stay connected, and engage in civic participation. Not only does this apply to college students and working professionals, but also particularly to younger generations. In fact, youth are known to researchers as the current defining users of social media. Yet there is a lack of research on how racial minority adolescents, in particular, may be affected by digital technologies and social media use. This is where the Youth, Media & Wellbeing Lab steps in.


Social media is often a safe space for adolescents of color, and rather than forcing them to spend less time on it or to spend more time on educational sites, we should instead encourage them to learn about healthy social media behaviors...

Thanks to Dr. Charmaraman and the lab, I was given the opportunity to present at my first conference (albeit virtually) on our mixed-methods study that examined how adolescents of color access and use social media for self-care, motivation, and wellbeing. Through reviewing previous research, I learned about the drawbacks of frequent social media usage: There are a number of studies that point to an increase in mental health concerns for adolescents due to cyberbullying, feeling left out, and peer pressure. Yet social media is often a safe space for adolescents of color, and rather than forcing them to spend less time on it or to spend more time on educational sites, we should instead encourage them to learn about healthy social media behaviors—for example, teaching them about risky behaviors and “internet friends” while encouraging them to use social media to connect with friends.

Along with other members of the lab, I am currently working on a paper that focuses on the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic and social media usage on adolescents’ mental health. Given that we continue to stay somewhat socially isolated and forced to live with uncertainty, mental health has become a popular topic, more than ever before.


Without a doubt, working in this lab has laid the foundation for my understanding of social science research and academia...

I have enjoyed applying the knowledge and frameworks from the classes I’ve taken to the research at the Youth, Media & Wellbeing Lab. I’ve also enjoyed how the research topics move with the times we’re in, to stay relevant. Through this position, I was able to learn and refine my research skills, such as conducting literature reviews and using qualitative and quantitative data analysis methods. Dr. Charmaraman is also an incredible and passionate researcher and mentor. Although she is often busy on various projects and mentors a number of students, she makes time to get to know each student in her lab individually and makes an effort to assign them work particular to their interests.

Prior to joining the lab, as a Neuroscience and Women’s and Gender Studies double major, I struggled to find interdisciplinary opportunities where these areas of interest intersect. Without a doubt, working in this lab has laid the foundation for my understanding of social science research and academia, which was helpful during my job search as well as preparation for future postgraduate studies. I wish I had become involved with the Youth, Media & Wellbeing Lab earlier during my time at Wellesley, but I am eternally grateful for getting the opportunity to work in such a wonderful space among incredible and inspiring people.


Emily Zhai is a member of the Class of 2021 at Wellesley College and graduated with a degree in Neuroscience and Women’s & Gender Studies. She worked part-time as a research assistant at the Youth, Media & Wellbeing Research Lab from fall 2020 to spring 2021. She now works as a clinical research coordinator at the Stanford Center for Precision Mental Health and Wellness in California.

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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 Research Internship that Expands Horizons

Neha LundI never knew that I would have the opportunity to do social science research as an undergraduate until I got to Wellesley College. Towards the end of my first year, with my academic interests starting to gravitate toward Sociology and South Asia Studies, I knew I wanted to connect the concepts I was learning in the classroom to action-oriented research that produced tangible results for communities that I cared about. Through the helpful guidance of my peers, professors, and mentors, I discovered that I could get that opportunity by working at the Wellesley Centers for Women.

WCW’s social justice-oriented mission and reputation for providing meaningful collaboration opportunities for Wellesley students drew me to attend a networking event with students and WCW research scientists. This is where I first met my soon-to-be research mentor, Dr. Linda Charmaraman — little did I know that our conversation would be the beginning of a year full of support, learning, growth, and mentorship. Through the Sophomore Early Research Program (SERP), which provides funded research opportunities to underrepresented students in scientific and social science research, I have been a full-time research assistant to Linda in her Youth, Media & Wellbeing Lab this school year.

As a first-generation student, the idea of entering the world of academic research with no experience was definitely nerve-wracking. However, having such a passionate, dedicated, and encouraging mentor as Linda (who is also a first-generation woman of color in academia) has made all the difference. Linda has not only taught me mixed-methods research skills such as data analysis, transcription, coding, and conducting literature reviews. She has also shown me that there is space in the academy for scholars who look like me and who value the same social justice principles that I do. My SERP experience has opened up the door of academic research as a possible future career path, something I am so grateful for at this point in my academic career.

The main project I have been working on with Linda this year is co-authoring a journal article that explores the blurred boundaries between middle school students’ social media use in the context of school and home. Especially in the era of COVID-19, when learning is increasingly dependent on social technologies, we believe it is crucial to facilitate collaborative, complementary partnerships between educators and parents to best support students’ social media use. One of my favorite parts of the research process has been utilizing concepts and frameworks I have been learning in the classroom, such as in my sociology class on schools and society, in order to add to our article from my unique perspective.

Having the opportunity to contribute to this project as an undergraduate student has allowed me to develop a sense of pride in my work, connecting my liberal arts education with my passion for meaningful practical applications. Our lab at WCW values working together with schools, community organizations, and families, which shows how academic research has the potential to be accessible and change-provoking when created with the intent of contributing to social wellbeing. My experience as a research assistant this year has complemented my Wellesley education through providing me with avenues to exercise my intellectual agency and collaborate with other students and faculty in our lab. I am so grateful to have the opportunity to conduct mixed-methods research so early in my Wellesley career, and it has truly shaped my trajectory going forward. More than ever, I understand how many different ways my education has the potential to contribute to positive change, and I am excited to continue my work in the lab going forward.

Neha Lund is a member of the Wellesley College class of 2022 who is majoring in Sociology and minoring in South Asia Studies. Through the Sophomore Early Research Program, she is also a full-time research intern at the Youth, Media & Wellbeing Research Lab at the Wellesley Centers for Women.

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Research Connections: A Student Teacher’s View on Social Media in the Classroom

Emily VargasIt is the spring of 2020, and my senior year at Wellesley College is not at all what I imagined it would be like. Before concerns about COVID-19 led schools around the country to close their doors, I was student teaching at a nearby middle school and working as a research assistant in the Youth, Media & Wellbeing Research Lab at the Wellesley Centers for Women. Since mid-March, I have been taking my classes online and working from home in California. Now more than ever, as schools are using social networking sites to reach their students at home, I can see a strong connection between what I learned in my teaching role and in my research role.

My work in the Youth, Media & Wellbeing Research Lab involves reading articles and learning about how schools integrate social technology in the classroom, and whether teachers are trained to do so. As I began this work last semester, I was starting my own journey of teaching in a classroom.

From the very beginning of my student teaching experience, I saw how my research played out at school. I saw students dancing to TikTok dances (sometimes subconsciously) as they were talking to their teacher — such a common occurrence that the teacher seemed unfazed by it. As I was learning in the lab, teachers were divided on their feelings towards the popular app. One day as I passed by the library, I noticed some teachers trying to make a TikTok video. They wanted to know more about the app and how to use it to engage students. Not all teachers felt that way — some seemed uninterested, and some were cautious of it. One teacher mentioned to me that she was worried about students putting their personal information online and uploading videos of themselves for anyone to see.

In a social studies class, students were beginning a unit on Brazil. If the semester had continued as normal, I planned to have this class video chat with a friend of mine who was studying abroad in Brazil at the time. I thought it would be a good way to get students excited about their studies and bring more social technologies into the classroom.

Since students are now at home, I am sure they are using a lot of social networking sites. The teachers I was working with are using Google Classroom, and just recently, I joined my mentor teacher’s office hours on Google Hangouts. Through this platform, students are able to socialize and talk about their homework online.

I have been thinking a lot about my own future teaching and how I would like to bring social technologies into my classroom. I hope to use what I have learned in the classroom and in the lab to find ways to engage my students with the things they are most excited about. It is very clear now that social technologies can connect students online and that we still have a lot to learn about the best ways to use them. I hope that as classes move to online formats, social technologies begin to be integrated into more classrooms, and more training is provided to teachers on how to use them effectively.

Emily Vargas is a member of the Wellesley College class of 2020 who is double majoring in English and Education. She is also a research assistant in the Youth, Media & Wellbeing Research Lab at the Wellesley Centers for Women.

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The Social Media Sweet Spot: 5 Ways Parents Can Help Teens Use Social Media Thoughtfully

two bored teenage girls look at their phonesA recent study out of University College London confirmed a very strong connection between social media use and depressive symptoms in teenagers. And this connection was much stronger in girls than in boys. (This does not mean that social media causes depression -- it just means that we know that children who use more social media have more depressive symptoms. More research needs to be done to figure out the reason behind this.)

The researchers looked at four explanations for why this might be. Poor sleep, online harassment, poor self-esteem, and poor body image all played a role.

My mind’s eye went immediately to my three wonderful, intelligent, strong and independent daughters, and to the social media apps that are such an integral part of their lives. My 15-year-old texts and video-chats with her friends through Snapchat, FaceTime and Whatsapp. My 13-year-old creates lip-syncing videos to share with her buddies via TikTok. And my 9-year-old immerses herself in a virtual zoological Animal Jam world of colorful biomes and customizable animals.

These apps provide positive experiences, such as socializing with friends, expressing emotions through creative cinematography, and learning facts about wildlife and its habitats. My little one often claims, “I’m so much better at typing now that I am using Animal Jam all the time!” Indeed, there is something to be said for the technical savvy that children are picking up as they navigate their way through social media landscapes that often baffle the older generation. If electronic communication is the way of the future, then it can be helpful to hone their digital skills at early ages.

In fact, there are a myriad of benefits to social media. The American Academy of Pediatrics lists a few: offering of opportunities for community engagement, such as political or charitable events; fostering of ideas through blogs, videos, podcasts and games; opening of doors to connect with people of diverse backgrounds in a much smaller and more interconnected global world; enhancing of learning opportunities as students gather together in group chats to work on homework or projects; and greater access to health information about topics that teens might otherwise not feel comfortable discussing with adults (such as mental or sexual health issues).

So there are pros and cons. This leaves us with so many questions. How do we parents find the balance? That sweet spot where they reap the benefits but are protected from the pitfalls? How much do we need to worry about impending depression or anxiety creeping up on them? How much time is too much time on social media? What can I do to mitigate these scary-sounding effects the devices might be having on my children?

I don’t have all the answers, but I do have some thoughts on how parents can help teens use social media thoughtfully and appropriately:

  • Create screen-free zones, such as bedrooms and kitchen tables. And screen-free times such as mealtime and before bedtime. This will help reduce the amount of time kids are on their devices and allow for better quality and quantity sleep. (The devices might need to be given a “curfew” to enforce this tactic. A charging station in the kitchen or other central room can also be a good spot to park the devices for the night.)
  • Open the lines of communication with your kids. Talk to them about their social media experiences. Educate them about the advantages and disadvantages. Have ongoing conversations about anything they want to talk about, and reassure them that you are the trusted adult they can turn to if/when they become mired in teenage angst.
  • Keep in mind that it is not only quantity, but quality, that is important. Keep abreast of the apps your children are using, and encourage them to use social media in positive ways.
  • Avoid banning, blocking or restricting your kids’ access to social media sites. This generally doesn’t work and may backfire if the forbidden fruit becomes so tempting that they simply use it behind your back.
  • Be a good example to your kids. Use your own devices less! Engage with your children, and on your own, in non-screen activities. Enjoy the outdoors, read a book, play a game, do some fun activities as a family. Wax nostalgic for the days of yore when smartphones didn’t exist but people still knew how to enjoy!

My three girls are living in the wild west of cyberspace, with a frontier that is open to exploration. I hope that I can help guide them to that sweet spot of not-too-much and not-too-little, so that they enjoy the positive without enduring the negative along the way.

Elana Pearl Ben-Joseph, MD, is a visiting scholar with the Youth, Media & Wellbeing Research Lab at the Wellesley Centers for Women. She is also a pediatrician and medical editor at Nemours Children’s Health System's KidsHealth.org.

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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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