June is PRIDE Month
[F]inding one’s community is integral to adolescent development. The members of that community create space for relationships to grow.
For some teens, that community is found on dating apps meant for adult gay men — apps that only require a user enter a birth date that coincides with the site’s legal terms of service.
A new Northwestern Medicine study (published in the Journal of Adolescent Health) found that more than 50 percent of sexually active gay and bisexual boys ages 14 to 17 use dating (also known as hook-up) apps like Grindr (21+) and Scruff (18+) to find new friends and boyfriends.
Data was gathered through online surveys taken by 200 sexually experienced teens in the United States and is the first known study on the topic.
“I was surprised we didn’t know this information when we started the study, but a lot of folks don’t do research on people under the age of 18, especially on LGBTQ teens under the age of 18, for a variety of reasons,” said Dr. Kathryn Macapagal, an author on the study and research assistant professor of medical social sciences at the Institute for Sexual and Gender Minority Health and Wellbeing at the Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine. “But we found that teens in this study were super excited that somebody was paying attention with what was going on in their lives and how these apps played a role in their sexual development and coming-out process,” she said.
Macapagal says gay and bisexual male teens turn to the apps to meet others in that community because they feel there are few opportunies to do so where they live. App features might also appeal to those not as open about their sexual identity, or who are navigating dating and sex with same-gender partners for the first time.
“Youth who use these apps are, many times, also looking for partners on Facebook, Instagram, Tindr, etc.,” Macapagal added. “If you’re using something like Grindr, the likelihood of you having a sexual relationship with this person is higher. But we also found that although you might have had sexual relations with these folks, these folks might have turned into friends, they might have turned into boyfriends. So there is some evidence that youth are getting lots more out of these apps than just sexual relationships.”
Dr. Hector Torres, chief program officer at the Center on Halsted, an LGBT community center in Lakeview, said he found the study to be “alarming and surprising.” So did Denise DeRosa, mother of three and cyber-safety consultant from Bethesda, Md.
“The fact that they’re on at all is definitely concerning,” she said. “There should be some type of mechanism to prevent this. As much as we parents can do, we can’t do everything, so I think these apps have to take some of the responsibility for making sure that their environment is safe – that there’s some sort of functioning guardrail to keep anybody under 18 from using it.”
DeRosa said she understands why a teen seeks out connections, but she is adamant about being careful when doing so online. She suggests parents step up their game to find out what their teen’s favorite apps are and which ones they stay on the longest.
“I wouldn’t want anyone to go meet someone without really, fully vetting these people or maybe telling a parent,” she said. “That’s where the dangers are, and I think that kind of goes across whether you’re heterosexual, homosexual, transgender or lesbian — we don’t want 14-year-olds seeking to date people 21 and older.”
But Torres cautioned that pressing for better youth protections on hookup apps, is probably a losing game. He said it’s too easy for less scrupulous apps to jump in and serve LGBTQ teens.
“Sexuality in adolescence is such a force that, no matter what we do, it’s going to happen,” he said. “The sex or hooking up apps are scary because of their bluntness and access, yet Facebook, Snapchat and other apps are often used the same way. We just don’t study them as much.”
When asked about the study results, Grindr offered this statement: “Grindr does not condone illegal or improper behavior and we are troubled that an underage person may have been using our app in violation of our terms of service. Grindr services are only available for adults. Grindr encourages anyone aware of any illegal or improper activity on the app to submit a report either within the app or via email.”
As with any social media site teenagers use, there are benefits and drawbacks. For example, the study found that teenage boys who used the apps were more likely to seek out important sexual health services, such as HIV testing.
“Gay and bisexual adolescent boys account for almost two-thirds of HIV infections among teenagers in the United States, but unfortunately sex education and HIV prevention tailored to their needs is almost nonexistent,” Macapagal said. “The sooner we understand the role these apps play in the lives of gay and bisexual teen guys, the sooner we will be able to tailor sex education and HIV prevention efforts for this population and help them live healthier lives.”
The study also highlights just how little parents, educators and health care providers know about how teens spend their time on apps and online technology that is constantly changing. This may have parents feeling they have little to no control over the situation, but Torres said they do have control over communication.
“If parents have good communication with children and know that their children want to meet more people like them, and they can meet that need, then the app becomes less necessary,” he said. “And there are places like Center on Halsted where young people can meet other young people and entertain themselves in a healthy environment and develop skills, and it’s supervised.”
Torres said it helps to have honest conversations with teens: What does it mean to have sex? If sex is going to happen, with whom should it happen? When should it happen? What are the risks, and how can you best protect yourself?
“What we do know from studies of heterosexual adolescents is that communication with parents can really help in sexual health and well-being,” Torres said. “And what happens with the LGBT community is that parents may be less comfortable talking about sex, and even less about these apps.”
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