The paper's latest piece on gender issues is dangerously misguided
Earlier this week, US Surgeon General Vivek Murthy warned that social media may pose a “profound risk of harm” to children and adolescents. But before the ink could dry on that story, the New York Times rushed to print a defence of social media for a subset of young people who identify as LGBTQ.
This article provides yet another example of what I’ve come to think of as the mainstream media’s underside narratives. Alongside the official narrative (“for one group of teenagers, social media seems a clear net benefit”), the reporter provides all the material necessary to support a subversive reading: that the risks of social media might outweigh the benefits for LGBTQ youth — especially young people who come to identify as transgender — too.
Online communities provide unrestricted — and, conveniently, disembodied — spaces for adolescents to test-drive new identities. As one researcher put it, “the Internet’s ability to empower users in various ways – from online support to testing and expressing different selves – makes it almost an ideal medium for transgender individuals.”
But what matters when it comes to evaluating the role of online communities in LGBTQ “self-discovery” is the direction of travel. Are there some children and adolescents who are innately transgender, who struggle with their identities in isolation until they find a language for their experiences and a place to belong online? Or do online spaces that constantly prompt youth to question their gender identities — and then tell them that questioning their gender means they’re trans — precipitate such gender “revelations” and set young people on the path to irreversible body modifications?
Take the story of Cassius O’Brien-Stiner, who “had some negative and even dangerous experiences online” — but, the reporter notes, “it was also where he first learned the word ‘trans.’” Other passages are strongly suggestive of social contagion:
Her classmate Jareth Leiker, 16, said seeing people come out online helped young people do it in their own lives: “To see someone else have the courage to do something, you have the courage.”
My research on online trans communities paints a messier picture than the Times does. Sometimes, social support can look more like love-bombing. Online trans communities can drip-feed new sources of anxiety and obsessive fixation. This kind of endless negative co-rumination can have devastating effects on mental health. Members who run afoul of community attitudes and beliefs may find themselves ostracised for wrongthink.
Online trans communities also provide tips on how to evade clinical “gatekeeping” — often by concealing important information from medical providers — or push young people to go it alone with black-market hormones. “Nonbinary” influencers like 45-year-old Jeffrey Marsh encourage kids to go “no contact” with loving parents who dare to question whether transition is right for their children. Exposure to disordered-identity influencers — whether they promote tics, multiple personalities, or “top surgery” — can send young people struggling with ordinary challenges of adolescent development down the road to dysfunction. Some young people even claim to experience grooming by adults who tell them it’s wrong to be gay but that transition can fix all that.
A lot of what happens in online trans communities looks more like online radicalisation than anything else. According to the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, signs of online radicalisation include: “isolating themselves from family and friends, talking as if from a scripted speech, unwillingness or inability to discuss their views, a sudden disrespectful attitude towards others, increased levels of anger, [and] increased secretiveness, especially around internet use.”
Concerned parents link trans identification to a sharp increase in Internet use, discarded interests and hobbies, isolation from family and friends, disruptions in mood and behaviour, increased intolerance toward differing viewpoints, and increased levels of anger and conflict within the home. A recent survey of Canadian young adults identified transgender and gender-diverse youth as at particular risk of radicalisation, outstripping their peers in expressing severe alienation and sympathy for the use of violence against perceived antagonists.
After a brief foray into serious coverage of gender, the New York Times appears to have caved to activist pressure, running a series of pieces that are impressive in their ideological compliance but shameful when judged by the ordinary standards of journalism. When the Times decides to return to reporting, it would do well to re-examine all of its coverage that contributed to this troubling climate.