The internet as a safety-Net for same sex attracted young people

‘It’s just easier’ The Internet as a safety-Net for same sex attracted young people

Click for full PDF version: “It’s just easier” Internet use report

Lynne Hillier, Chyloe Kurdas & Philomena Horsley
This work was funded by the Commonwealth Department of Health & Aged Care. ARCSHS is a collaborating centre to the National Centre in HIV Social Research.
>NHMRC ii © Australian Research Centre in Sex Health and Society This work is copyright. Apart from any use as permitted under the Copyright Act 1968, no part may be reproduced by any process without prior written permission from the Publisher. Requests and inquiries concerning reproduction and rights should be directed to the Australian Research Centre in Sex Health and Society, La Trobe University, 1/215 Franklin St, Melbourne, VIC 3000. December 2001. Melbourne, Australia: La Trobe University, Australia: 3000. Australian Research Centre in Sex Health and Society (ARCSHS)
Tel: +61 3 92855382
Fax: +61 3 92855220
Monograph series number 29
ISBN : 1 8644 6559 X
Cover design: Anthony Muscat iii

We would like to thank Jan Watson, Jenny Walsh, Michael Crowhurst, Bernadette Roberts, Anne Mitchell, Lyn Harrison, Debbie Ollis, Deb Currin, Sue Dyson and Sarah Russell for their insightful comments on earlier drafts of this report.

Thanks also to the following people: Deborah Dempsey for her work in the early stages of the project, Emma Hopton for coordinating its production, Marian Pitts and other staff at ARCSHS who assisted with the project.

We want to acknowledge the important role of the SSAY Reference group that provided valuable advice in the formulation of the questionnaire and at many stages of the project (members are listed in Appendix II).

We thank the chatroom moderators for their support in recruiting and linking sites and the many organisations Australia-wide who assisted our work by promoting the research to young people.

We particularly want to thank the young people who contributed their thoughts and experiences to the project and shared such important and personal aspects of their lives with us.

Our gratitude goes to Anthony Muscat who provided us with the design for the cover of this report. Anthony is a year 12 student at South Oakleigh Secondary College in Melbourne who originally hails from a small country town in Victoria. Anthony’s passion for design and art work produced such an original and striking design. Thank you to Simon Kwok, Infographics Pty Ltd for production layout.

Darnell, R. et. al. 1997, Html 4. Sams Net Publishing: Indianapolis COMPLILED BY CHYLOE KURDIS

This report explores the use of the Internet by same sex attracted young people (SSAY). Internet access is increasing in Australian homes at a rapid rate, with more than 75% of young people under the age of 18 years accessing the Net in 1999. Yet little is known about the specific ways in which young people generally, and same sex attracted young people in particular, use the Net for friendship, information and recreation.

This report further develops certain issues raised in previous national research (Hillier et al, 1998) which documented the extent to which same sex attracted young people are denied support and information about their sexuality, and the verbal and physical abuse they experienced in many areas of their life in Australia.

A questionnaire was designed for on-line completion at the Australian Research Centre in Sex, Health & Society (ARCSHS) SSAY website. The young people participating in this research were, for the most part, recruited directly via promotion strategies on the Net. In total, 206 valid questionnaires were submitted via the website. Of these 151 (73.3%) were male, 52 (25.2%) were female and 3 (1.5%) were transgender young people. The average age was 18 years and all states and territories were represented as well as urban, regional and rural areas.

We asked young people about the broad purpose of their Net use: 25% used the Internet for work and 54% used it for study, 70% used it for general leisure and 86% used it for sexuality-related leisure. Young people’s main reason for the latter use was to gain support and affirmation for their sexual feelings. About half of the young people also used the Net to access information about sexuality and safe sex. A smaller number used the Net for more directly related sexual purposes, such as a arousal before sex, Cybersex and/or to meet someone in Real Life (RL).

Eight-five percent of the young people reported that the Net played an important role in putting them in touch with others like them and 70% felt it played an important role in reducing their isolation. It offered a sense of community and support, especially when young people felt depressed or suicidal at some point (nearly 50%). Two-thirds of the young people found the Net important or very important to them in accessing sexual health information, and 62% of young men and 26% of young women found it important in facilitating Real Life contact and friendship with other SSAY.

We asked the participants how they felt about their sexuality and 65% felt ‘great’ or ‘pretty good’ about it, which is slightly higher than our previous research. While we cannot directly compare this sample with our previous research, the findings of this report suggest that the Net is playing a vital role in supporting the development or maintenance of a positive sexual identity in these young people as well as providing them with a strong sense of community.

What young people liked most about the Net was communicating with other young people like them. They used the Net to make new contacts, especially via gay chatrooms, and to keep them in touch with existing friends.


Coming out in Real Life is often not a comfortable or safe experience for SSAY, and research suggests this is a time of heightened risk for suicide of young people in this situation. We found that nearly half of the young people had told ‘everyone’ on the Net about their sexual identity and almost all (90%) had told at least one person they met on the Net. People in Real Life were less likely to be told by SSAY than those on-line. Young people also found the quality of support on the Net to be better, with most finding it ‘very supportive’ (62%) or ‘mostly supportive’ (22%). The Net also clearly provides an important ‘rehearsal space’ for coming out in Real Life.

We were interested in the qualities that Net life offered, how these differed from Real Life, and what either encouraged or inhibited an openness about sexuality among young people. Young people reported that it was ‘just easier’ on the Net, with its coexistent qualities of distance and intimacy. Communication about sexuality on the Net was more likely to be comfortable, safe and companionable. Inhabitants of the Net were often experienced as more diverse, less judgemental, and more open, worldly and sophisticated than people in Real Life.

The Net enabled access to same sex attracted young people of all ages and allowed young people to live their sexuality in a ‘normalised’ way. Real Life was a place in which most young people were hesitant to entrust their sexual identities, and Real Life encounters often loomed as threatening experiences. However, many young people yearned to live their authentic selves in a Real Life context and some found the discrepancy between their preferred ‘Net identity’ and their camouflaged ‘Real Life identity’ an uncomfortable and disconcerting experience.

We asked young people how their life would change if they were without the Internet. The vast majority responded that life would be altered in a negative way, and for some it would profoundly difficult. Those who felt they would be least affected were those who were currently relatively open about their sexuality in Real Life and to some extent connected to gay and lesbian networks. For others the proposition created an emphatic sense of distress and terms such as ‘isolated’, ‘lonely’ and ‘desperate’ were frequently used. Despite significant proportions of young people feeling good or great about their sexuality, most clearly depended to some significant degree on the support from their virtual community.

Seventy-five percent of the young people, proportionally more young men than women, had organised to meet someone in Real Life after first contacting them on the Net. Friendship (42%), a date (34%), sex (14%) and shared interests (8%) were the reasons for their last meeting of this kind. Some meetings were problematic – failed arrangements, misrepresentations and mismatches of expectations – but rarely traumatic. Most meetings were a positive experience for young people.

Current adult concerns about Net use by young people include: their exposure to undesirable information and people, loss of ability to relate in Real Life, and time-wasting. Many SSAY who participated (58%) had had concerns about their own Internet use at some point, primarily concerned with escapism from RL and the addictive nature of the Net. Chatroom harassment was reported, particularly by boys, as was discomfort when stumbling across homophobic websites. Others experienced discomfort when they heard about other people’s negative life experiences but could do nothing to help. However young people clearly had a number of strategies that they employed to protect themselves from hurtful or threatening situations either on the Net or when meeting in Real Life.

There has been little attention paid to gender in research involving same sex attracted young people over the last decade, with many studies focussing only on boys, particularly those looking at youth suicide. Our research suggests that young women were using the Internet in different ways to young men: they were less likely to meet in RL, less likely to use the Net for sex-related activities and more reluctant to use the Net for contacts and support. However, there was a significant percentage of young women who did all of these things and when they did the outcome was very rewarding for them.

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