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Who Opens the Door? Coming Out in the Age of Social Media

As the tragedy of Tyler Clementi has shown, as adolescents go through a process of coming to terms with their sexuality, not knowing the distinction between public and private can have serious effects.
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Seven months after the September 2010 death of Tyler Clementi, his former roommate Dharun Ravi has been indicted by a New Jersey grand jury on hate-crime charges. Clementi jumped from the George Washington Bridge after learning that Ravi had videotaped and then broadcast his sexual encounter with another male student.

Clementi's suicide, and those of other gay teens last year, drew considerable media attention. In an era of gay celebrities and gay television characters, many wondered why are these young people killing themselves when gays and lesbians are so much more accepted today?

Although there are more gays and lesbians in the media, reality shows and the Internet have transformed contemporary notions of privacy and are affecting the ability of individuals to control their path of coming out as gay, lesbian or bisexual. This can have harmful effects, some intentional and some unintentional.

One young woman recently told me she was shocked when her parents found out she was gay by reading her Facebook page. Another young man was upset that he had seen postings on a friend's "wall" spreading a rumor that he was gay. He had confided to another friend that he was questioning his sexuality, and was devastated to see his private struggle posted on the web for the whole world to see.

A recently published clinical report in the journal Pediatrics tells of the risks and benefits of tweens' and teens' use of social media like Facebook, Myspace, and Twitter. It noted that cyberbullying, defined as deliberately using digital media to communicate false, embarrassing, or hostile information about another person, can lead to depression, anxiety, isolation, and suicide. Another study, "Bullying, Cyberbullying, and Suicide," published in the Archives of Suicide Research, found that middle-schoolers who had experienced bullying or cyberbullying had more suicidal thoughts and were more likely to have attempted suicide when compared to students who had not been bullied.

Some problems created by social media are not malicious or intentional but a byproduct of changing social mores. Kids coming of age today have a completely different notion of their public versus private selves than do the generations who grew up before the era of Facebook. Showing the world one's every move has become so commonplace that many young people may not understand--or care about--previous generations' distinctions between the public and private dimensions of sexuality. As in Tyler Clementi's case, this can sometimes have tragic consequences.

In fact, shortly after the suicide, Ravi said he had no problem with Clementi's homosexuality and he may not have thought his roommate did either. In an era when few young people think being gay is a big deal, many adolescents and young adults may not realize that even today, growing up gay is not easy.

They may not realize that coming out is not simply the act of telling others one is gay, lesbian or bisexual. It first involves a personal and often painful process of coming out to oneself. This is followed by a life-long series of decisions about who else to tell. For example, one may choose to come out to a best friend but not one's other friends, to friends but not to family, or to family but not to coworkers.

Ideally, the decision to come out should be left to the individual. Choosing to reveal that one is gay, lesbian or bisexual to a friend, family member, teacher, pastor, or doctor may lead to rejection. The presence of a gay TV character may not alleviate the fear of losing a friend or family member after revealing one's secret. However, in the age of the Internet, some of these private and personal decisions are being taken away from the individual.

As the tragedy of Tyler Clementi has shown, as adolescents go through a process of coming to terms with their sexuality, not knowing the distinction between public and private can have serious effects. In this era of electronic media, we need to teach our kids about the importance of respecting privacy--both their own and that of others.