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Glowing Up with Social Media

A zoomer’s queer perspective in the wake of a global pandemic 

Reflecting on my experience with social media both before and after that fateful day last year when shelter-in-place orders were first imposed, I’m filled with ambivalence. A scroll through your newsfeed might suggest social media negatively impacts mental well-being, yet one recent study also highlights the positive influences these digital networks can have on young adults, especially young queer people. As I see it, the two hours I spend a day browsing could be exposing me to harmful messaging and taking time away from healthier activities; but it could also be increasing my happiness by allowing connection to friends, peers, and health activists. Confusing. 

Could these mixed feelings about social media be a product of my conformist personality, my evolving queer identity, or my mental health challenges? My guess is all of the above. I’m one person, living one life, but when it comes to the ways that social media have been a part of shaping my identity, there’s more than one story to tell.

Coming of Age in the Age of Social Media 

When I was in high school in the early 2010’s, I watched social media adoption go from being something no one cared about to something everyone did. As an awkward underclass-person, desperate to be slightly less awkward, I didn’t hesitate to jump on the bandwagon of perfectly curated memes and online clout. Who wouldn’t want to participate in the digital revolution of human connection? But soon, it started feeling less like connecting, and more like keeping up. Like many Zoomers, I battle chronic FOMO; I was fearful of missing out in 2011, and I’m still fearful of missing out a decade later. In the era of real-time updates and pinging notifications, I’m genuinely worried I’ll miss something important, all the time. And by important, I mean the latest and greatest information everyone else is talking about, regardless of its relevance to my life circumstance or desires—a common approach my generation, for better or worse, uses to discern information worth sharing.  

Because I grew up with online networks taking precedence over nearly all other forms of social interaction, it’s hard to imagine how everyday routines would look without it. How my quality of life could flourish or crumble in its absence. Whether proud of it or not, I, along with the other 20% of the U.S. population in Gen Z have a special bond with social media. We’re digital natives, and we’re coming of age together.

Social Media and Identity 

I didn’t realize I was queer during this time when social media was in its nascent stage. I spent my formative years in Indiana, a conservative area waffling on LGBTQ+ rights, and I can’t help but wonder if that delayed my exploration of queer identity. I wonder if my experience joining the social media movement would have been different as an openly queer person. 

As it happened, social media and my queer awakening did not mix well. During my first semester in college studying contemporary movement, my mental health faltered badly. I suddenly fell out of love with dance and into a period of major depression and anxiety. Such negative emotions eroded my self-confidence and forced me to confront the facets of myself I had been hiding, namely my queerness. While I don’t believe that social media was responsible for my struggles during this time, it did accelerate my deteriorating mental health and feelings of loneliness. With no motivation to engage in activities that once brought me joy, I incessantly scrolled to distract from the pain and confusion I felt inside. I didn’t know at the time how common this is—37% of LGBTQ+ youth report using social media “almost constantly.” 

But it wasn’t distracting.  My experience with social media up to that point had been a constant stream of cisnormative, heteronormative content; competitions for who could succeed the most within a crushingly narrow mold. I again was subjecting myself to the pervasive apprehension of missing out on others’ experiences. My reality, one filled with mercurial emotions, glitter mascara-stained tissues, and rainbow tie-dye, didn’t match the exclusive lives I observed online. I found myself repeatedly shrinking my identity, hoping it would one day fit comfortably inside this mold, deeply concerned something was inherently wrong with me. It wasn’t until the onset of a global pandemic that I realized such a conventional mold didn’t honor my worth.

A Silver Lining

Without minimizing the collective suffering we’ve experienced over the past year, the pandemic has afforded me the opportunity to reevaluate my relationship with social media. Quarantine threw me into physical isolation, and I leaned heavily on digital devices to create and maintain the connections that once came so naturally in real life. I began to let go of the tight hold I had on social comparison, and instead ventured into online spaces that were more aligned with my true self and actual life. 

It’s not just my mentality that has shifted during COVID, it’s also how I engage on social media. I’ve replaced many of the accounts I follow that used to spark self-comparison and anxiety in me with a feed full of queer activists who model mental health recovery, daily affirmation exercises, and roller skate community forums. I’m carving out an online space for myself that feels uplifting and safe, a space where I’m affirmed in who I am. And I’m not the only one. Today, more LGBTQ+ youth are likely to say that social media is “very important” for advice and support. Social media even makes us feel better, 28% of those with moderate to severe depressive symptoms say social media is “very” important for feeling less alone, compared to 13% of those without depression symptoms. 

A lot of us who may have had a fraught adolescence with social media are now showing up, taking up space, and finding each other there. Maybe it’s because we’re growing up, or maybe it’s because, for now, online is the only place there is to go. Either way, I’m learning that online socializing can be an outlet for inspiration, camaraderie, and creative expression. I’m learning how these platforms create space for queer young adults to lead a self-determined life that’s ours. 

From the author: 

I want to disclaim that I’m one white, able-bodied, neurodiverse, queer Italiana, and that my worldview and experiences are not representative of the entire LGBTQ+ young adult community. As with all minority groups, we are not a monolith.

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