Looking behind the numbers…

3 min read

A recent Gallup report (published mid-March and involving 12,000 Americans aged 18 and older, 85.6 percent of whom identified as heterosexual) showed that 7.6 percent declared that they identified with one or more LGBTQ+ group. 

Similar results very produced last year (between February 17 and March 3) by an an Ipsos poll, that concluded that about 9 percent of adults across 30 countries identified as LGBTQ+. Respondents to that survey included more than 22,514 adults under the age of 75 in 30 countries.

According to earlier Gallup polls, in 2012 only 3.5 percent, then in 2020 only 5.6 percent of the US society identified as LGBTQ+. 

While LGBTQ experts and advocates celebrate the results, claiming that “it was thanks to changes in attitudes towards LGBTQ identities, increased visibility and access to information through the internet”, that people are feeling more comfortable about coming out, something doesn’t quite add up.

The Gallup poll draws attention to the fact that 22.3 percent of the US Gen Z adults (those aged 18 to 25) identify themselves as LGBTQ+. The number means a significant increase compared to previous years, a trend that started around 2015, but has exponentially grown ever since. In other age groups, the ratio is much more balanced.

Higher acceptance level is unlikely to alone explain the jump (especially not within a decade), especially as it concerns mainly one generation. 

Gen Z is interesting, from many points of views. When they identify as LGBTQ, elder generations tended to identify mostly as homosexuals. In Gen Z there is a wide variety of sexual/gender identities.

In general, LGBTQ+ identification is more general among women (they are nearly twice as likely to identify as LGBTQ+ than men). And, just like the overall trend of being more likely to identify as LGBTQ+, the change started after or around 2015. Back in 2014, LGBTQ+ identification was about the same among men and women. 

The very same generation (Gen Z) is the only one that reported more negative effects than positive related to their use of social media, at least based on McKinsey Health Institute’s Global Gen Z Survey in 2023. They reported fears of missing out and poor body image. And while they are more likely to use digital wellness apps and digital mental health programs, they were also more likely to report poor mental health.

McKinsey’s is not the only report on this. According to the State of Gen Z Mental Health study, 42 percent of Gen Z respondents have been diagnosed with a mental health condition and 60 percent of Gen Z individuals are currently using medication to help manage their mental health. A little shockingly, only about 20 percent of them sought therapy to address their mental health concerns and 48 percent of those, who are taking medication admit that they haven’t participated in therapy. 

They are struggling to understand the world, the real life and themselves.

Probably not surprisingly, another survey, this time that of Morning Consult revealed that social media use is impacting Gen Z’s views on gender in a much more negative way that any other demographic group’s. Gen Z adults are 15 percentage points more likely than all U.S. adults to say that “their social media use has negatively impacted their outlook toward men and 10 percentage points more likely to say the same about women”. According to an Ipsos Poll, 21 percent of Gen Z women and 17 percent of men have self-hurt or suicidal thoughts (but only 14 percent of Millennial women and 8 percent of Gen X women). 

Diversity, equity and inclusion is great. It has contributed to the advancement of our societies, lifted previously segregated and neglected social groups into the centre of attention.

And there is still a lot of work to do.

But in a moment when the whole world is worried about Russian disinformation campaigns around the globe and pondering about the effects and harms, it would maybe time to focus on other aspects of social media as well.

Mental health and gender identity are complex issues and correlation between numbers doesn’t equal causation.

There is no direct link between social media and Gen Z-s complex problems, in fact, for many, the online community can be the only “safe place” to express themselves. That’s all true. 

But the real numbers and knowledge on cause-effect (you know, the question of chicken and egg) won’t be available until a few things are “rooted out”.

Mainly business.

Some estimates show that the global LGBTQ+ community has at least $3.7 trillion in purchasing power. And given that Gen Z is just about to enter the work force, the number is likely to grow. 

It’s not a coincidence, that marketing agencies “discovered” that niche.

Other data show that compared to generic ads, queer-inclusive ads can help consumers remember brands better, inspire higher-priced purchases and foster a more progressive company image. Companies work “with hundreds of influencers” to “authentically connect with audiences across various demographics”.

As a marketing strategist put it, “When brands authentically portray LGBTQ people … improves the brand’s reputation among all consumers, especially younger consumers”. Alas, many surveys point out that’s exactly “authenticity” what is lacking from those ads. And just a few years ago, Harris Insights and Analytics found that 67 percent of consumers thought that Pride Month has become to commercialized.

Bands aiming for Gen Z consumers need to create “a culture of bravery” and must have “attention-grabbing content”, or content that “makes consumers feel like they are being entertained, not sold to”. 

Alas, Gen Z is the same generation that falls for online misinformation more easily than the rest (easily believing even the most flagrant misinformation, like that “trumpies” will commit mass murder of LGBTQ individuals and people of colour). Research shows that they are more likely to believe and pass on misinformation if they feel a sense of common identity with the person who shared it in the first place. 

For them, identity (and not knowledge and expertise) is the main factor in deciding about someone’s credibility, having an enormous influence on their decision making. While this has the potential to empower marginalized groups, it might also have adverse effects: vulnerability to misleading narratives. And during the adolescent years, when people are desperately seeking peer-acknowledgement, attention and feedback, it can be a double-edged sword. 

Severe problems of teenage mental health issues had been known for a while. 

It might come across as blasphemy, but much more research would be needed to see, how many of them are dragged down into “echo chambers” by algorithms. That, besides poorer body image, disordered eating and depressive symptoms, might also cause them issues with their gender or sexual identity in an already vulnerable age and situation.

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