How Headstream is empowering young people, particularly those from the LGBTQIA+ and BIPOC communities, to co-create safe experiences online and help reshape the digital landscape to be more inclusive.
In May 2023, the United States Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy issued a sobering warning of the potential harm of social media and digital platforms on children and youth mental health. With over 95% of kids 3–18 using the internet, there’s no quick and easy fix.
The negative effects of internet usage may be even more disastrous for LGBTQIA+ youth, who are online roughly 45 minutes more per day than their peers and who use online forums to explore their identities and seek support even while they’re disproportionately targeted for bullying and other negative messaging.
As Lexi, one of the youth professionals involved in our program, puts it, “…the damage our society has done to its people is exposed to the highest degree through the anonymity granted by the web, and the ones being hurt and having to fix a bullet wound with a band-aid are young people.” This message deeply resonates with us, who are running Headstream, an initiative that creates a more meaningful digital experience for young people as they grow up in a digital age that is fraught with privacy and data concerns, cyberbullying, misinformation campaigns, addiction, body image issues, and more.
Since 2020, Headstream has stepped up to the challenge of making the internet safer for vulnerable users, establishing multiple youth programs that give young people a platform to actively participate in co-creating user-friendly, culturally competent products that help ensure young people have safe experiences while browsing the web.
Our primary focus is empowering young people, particularly those from the LGBTQIA+ and BIPOC communities, to help reshape the digital landscape to be more inclusive and safe for them. We do this by actively building bridges between these communities and the decision-makers in the tech industry.
The Need for Safe Digital Spaces
Lexi points out another critical issue, “Youth often aren’t taught boundaries and even more so with others on the internet; add on a marginalized identity like being LGBTQIA+ and you have a messy cocktail ready for disaster. Relationships online are not set up to succeed, and communities can be hard to build and keep healthy.”
In fact, these challenges are deeply entrenched in the architecture of the internet. By design, the internet provides a vast, unrestricted space free of the checks and balances that come with many physical interactions. This only exacerbates the vulnerability of LGBTQIA+ youth, who are more exposed to potential harm due to their increased internet usage.
These concerns were also highlighted by the Surgeon General, including the risks of increased screen time, exposure to harmful content, and the subsequent impact on mental health. In response, Headstream has not only been creating products but also cultivating change-makers.
Take the case of Guilherma, for example, an 18-year-old trans girl from Belo Horizonte, Brazil who grew up in a high middle-class family but struggled with her relationship with her conservative evangelical parents due to her identity and ambitions. She shared her personal experience as a Headstream participant, noting: “I faced a lot of challenges online, ranging from sexism, transphobia, and sexualization at a young age. However, Headstream was a key stepping stone in my life. I learned about product testing, accessibility, equity, feedback, user research, and intergenerational trauma.”
Through Headstream, Guilherma gained knowledge and skills that empowered her to navigate her digital environment. She is currently developing Ms. Gingy, a “public figure” to make the internet a safer and better place for all people to thrive. Her experience is a testament to the transformative power of education and support. It also highlights the importance of providing our youth with the tools to navigate and shape their digital environments.
Including Youth Voices Through Headstream’s Youth Programs
Through our Youth Advisory Board and Youth Consulting Program, we’ve enabled youth to co-create with tech developers to initiate product changes and improve their understanding of youth needs in their respective tech platforms.
At the heart of Headstream is our Accelerator program, which supports innovators working on digital solutions that support young people’s well-being. To date, we’ve worked with over 37 entrepreneurs, helping them scale their innovations and integrate youth voices into their work. We’ve also helped them understand their impact pathways and build technologies that cater specifically to LGBTQIA+ and BIPOC teens, teen girls, and the intersections of these identities. This work has been especially critical amidst the global pandemic, economic downturn, and the awakening of racial justice that has deeply impacted many of us. For example, three-fourths of LGBT people (74%) reported that worry and stress from the pandemic had a detrimental effect on their mental well-being, compared to 49% of non-LGBT individuals.
Beyond this, Headstream has sought to provide platforms for young people to be thought leaders. Our youth professionals have contributed to discussions at Sesame Workshop, participated in the evaluation process of the IDEO global innovation challenge, and co-led workshops at the Youth, Tech, and Health Conference and the Headstream Innovation Festival.
Making Waves for the Future
We’re aware that our work is just a ripple in the vast digital ocean. However, we believe that these ripples can create waves of change. The impact of our youth programs is best summarized by Guilherma, “Headstream is opening up a world of opportunities that are providing youth with the skills and resources they need to achieve their aspirations and reach their full potential.”
The changes we see in our Youth Consultants aren’t merely anecdotal. We have concrete evidence of the effectiveness of our programs:
Over 70% of Youth Consultants stated they now know how to take further action to influence companies for youth digital wellbeing. Over 50% reported gaining a new perspective on working with companies/organizations. An encouraging 16 out of 24 Youth Consultants reported an increase in confidence to influence organizations, feeling equipped to take on larger and longer-term consulting projects.
As we continue to build bridges between youth and decision-makers in the tech industry, we aim to positively influence the future of our digital world. We invite you to learn more about our youth co-creation programs and reach out to us if you want to be a part of this ongoing journey.
Our mission is clear: to prioritize the wellbeing of youth, particularly from the LGBTQIA+ and BIPOC communities, in our digital landscape. Headstream’s Accelerator program, part of SecondMuse’s portfolio of activities, plays a crucial role in supporting innovators and developing technologies that cater specifically to the needs of these communities.