Supporting LGBTQ+ Youth in the Digital Age: Online Safety, Sexuality, and Exploration

June 28, 2023

Having the sex talk has always been an uncomfortable moment between parents and kids. It’s often rushed; both parties often feel awkward and eager to end it. On top of that, parents now face the need to include the impact of ubiquitous technology on sex and dating for today's youth.

Despite the discomfort, these conversations are essential. As kids navigate the challenges of flirting with their crushes from school using their phones, they may also be rebuffing unsolicited requests for nudes from strangers online and attempts to befriend and manipulate them into sharing their own intimate images. 

For LGBTQ+ youth, these challenges are further exacerbated as they navigate added elements of identity formation, outness, and support in their offline worlds. . 

LGBTQ+ Youth: A Unique Digital Landscape

LGBTQ+ youth often rely on the internet more for connection and exploration than their non-LGBTQ+ peers. For many of them, the internet is the only place where they feel safe enough to be their authentic selves or find relatable communities.

Earlier this month, Thorn released new research exploring how LGBTQ+ youth are navigating sensitive and sometimes risky experiences in a digital age

A few things we learned:

LGBTQ+ minors seek out online spaces for community and privacy. Young LGBTQ+ people spend more time in digital spaces and tend to maintain more online-only relationships than their non-LGBTQ+ peers. 

Sharing nudes is viewed as increasingly normal among young people. 1 in 5 teens tell us they’ve shared their own nudes and 1 in 3 views it as normal. But we can’t fall into the trap of believing this is only a behavior kids are engaging with. In a survey of caregivers, 1 in 3 say they have also shared nudes at some point. 

LGBTQ+ teens are 10 points more likely to try and handle feeling unsafe online on their own. Cis non-hetero male teens are particularly vulnerable, with nearly half reporting they’d try to navigate this on their own. Among LGBTQ+ teens choosing not to report risky online experiences to their caregivers, 1 in 6 cited outness concerns and 1 in 5 were concerned they’d be cut off from their online community in response. 

What’s next?

Given this reality, we must equip parents and youth themselves with the knowledge they need to navigate online risks. The good news: there are a lot of ways to do so. 

It’s time to fold digital exploration into the “sex talk.”  While online sexual exploration may feel at times safer than offline exploration—particularly for LGBTQ+ youth—risks do exist. Just as we speak to details like preventing pregnancy and STDs, we also have to address sexting, grooming, and the risk of leaked intimate images.

Make sure your kids know about a wide range of tactics and resources to stay safe. While we all hope our kids will turn to us first if they have questions or feel uncomfortable, sometimes they just aren’t ready. Giving kids a range of options in addition to confiding in you empowers them with tools that might feel more approachable in the moment. Discuss the importance of blocking/reporting, safety resources like those from Amaze, NCMEC, and anonymous helplines like Crisis Text Line and the Trevor Project.

Talk to your kids not just about keeping themselves safe, but how they can help their friends stay safe. Those kids who aren’t ready or able to talk with a caregiver about a sensitive or unnerving experience may turn to afriend. Indeed, LGBTQ+ teens already do look to friends as they navigate unwanted or potentially harmful sexual interactions online at higher rates than their non-LGBTQ+ peers. In anticipation of this, talk to your kids about how this might make them feel and how you can support them as they support their friends. 

You may be thinking, “That’s great – but my kids don’t want to talk to me about this stuff.” You’re not alone, but there’s some good news here: our research shows that most kids actually do value having this conversation with their parents.  In fact, even in this connected age, two-thirds of kids would turn to someone they know offline over someone they had met online if they feel unsafe. 

If you need help getting started, don’t worry – we have you covered. Thorn for Parents is a valuable online resource that provides tips for having productive conversations early and often, and for making those talks less awkward. It includes scripts, talking points, scenario-based examples, and more.

No matter where you are in this journey, and no matter what your individual child’s online experiences and interactions look like, remember – you aren’t alone, and it’s never too late to start a conversation.

¹Thorn. (2022). Self-Generated Child Sexual Abuse Material: Youth Attitudes and Experiences in 2021.

²Thorn (2022). The Role of Caregivers: Safeguarding & Enhancing Youth Resilience Against Harmful Sexual Encounters Online

Written by

Melissa Stroebel

Melissa Stroebel is the Vice President of Research & Insights at Thorn, where she serves as a subject matter expert and drives strategic research examining emerging threats and trends in online sexual exploitation. Before joining Thorn in 2017, Melissa worked for nearly a decade with the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children as a victim identification analyst, product manager, and researcher. Melissa graduated from the University of Michigan with a bachelor’s degree in history and from George Washington University with a master’s degree in forensic science.