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Social media browsing can lead to more intentional information searches about sexual health for LGBTQ+ youth

Magnifying glass graphic. "LGBTQ+ youth and intentional sexual health information-seeking." Headshot of Dan Delmonaco, PhD student, Oliver Haimson, Assistant professor.

Thursday, 07/21/2022

LGBTQ+ youth can often face stigma around gender and sexuality questions. They may not feel comfortable asking friends, family or physicians questions, leaving knowledge gaps related to sexuality and sexual health. 

In a new study, University of Michigan School of Information researchers show that internet browsing on social media sites can lead LGBTQ+ youth to do more informed, intentional searches for sexual health information. 

“We know young people, especially LGBTQ+ young people, are going online for their sexual health information needs, but that’s very broad,” says Dan Delmonaco, UMSI doctoral student and lead author of the study. “We wanted to know, what online spaces are these young people actually using?”

Delmonaco and their co-author and UMSI assistant professor Oliver Haimson worked with community partners to recruit 17 LGBTQ+ youth ages 15 to 25 for the study. 

They found that specific searches on sexual health often came about because of something the participants saw or read online. “Our big finding was that they were in existing media spaces. Tumblr came up as a big one,” says Delmonaco, as did other sites like Reddit. They say another interesting website source came up: fanfiction sites. 

Fanfiction is new stories created by fans who expand or reinterpret the original storylines and characters from a fictional story. Delmonaco says fandom sites are often very important to queer young people as they develop their identities.

“Oftentimes fan fiction is doing the work of ‘queering’ an existing media property that isn't explicitly LGBTQ+,” says Delmonaco. They explain that some people search out fanfiction as a way to find representation of themselves. 

The researchers also found that participants who were intentionally searching for more information wanted to hear from people like themselves. “What participants really wanted was this lived-experience piece,” says Delmonaco.

YouTube creators, for instance, often weave their personal experiences into their content, mentioning details about relationships and sex lives. “Being able to hear from someone that they felt this connection with was really appealing to young people,” Delmonaco says. “To just see someone their age, or slightly older, someone who's been through it, talking about something that was relevant to them was really appealing.”

“If you aren't getting comprehensive sex education in school, and you aren't having these conversations with your friends and family, or a health care provider, you just don't know that relevant and accurate information about your body or sexuality exists,” says Delmonaco. 

For some young people, seeing specific phrasing or encountering a scenario online can be illuminating. “Something clicks, and it can be really powerful,” they say, adding that the experience can lead to more active and intentional information-seeking about their sexual health. 

Delmonaco says this study shows that young people often don’t take a straight route to sexual health information. “Oftentimes they were not even necessarily looking for something related to sexual health information,” they say. Instead, they encountered something online that flipped a switch.

They hope that their findings can help LGBTQ+ healthcare providers and nonprofit organizations leverage these social media platforms to present accurate sexual health information. Delmonaco says social media plays a big role for young people, and this means that “you have to be a bit more creative and inventive in creating resources for LGBTQ+ youth around sexual health information.”

Sarah Derouin, UMSI public relations specialist

RELATED:

Read “‘Nothing that I was specifically looking for’: LGBTQ + youth and intentional sexual health information seeking” in Journal of LGBT Youth.

Learn more about doctoral student Dan Delmonaco.
Learn more about assistant professor Oliver Haimson