Outing Someone on Social Media
Written and edited by our team of expert legal content writers and reviewed and approved by
Attorney Matthew Bergman
Social media can be a landmine for LGBTQ+ youth who are not yet out of the closet. Being outed on social media is an irreversible event that removes an individual’s control of their identity, leaving them vulnerable to cyberbullying, ostracization by friends and family, and severe mental health effects.
What is outing?
Outing means revealing someone’s gender identity or sexual orientation publicly without their consent. One of the unfortunate characteristics of social media is that a single post can spread quickly and even become viral in a matter of minutes. In most cases, it is a type of cyberbullying, but it can also happen inadvertently.
Once someone is outed on social media, there is no taking it back. Even if the original post is deleted, hundreds or even thousands of people, including everyone in the victim’s circle of family and friends, may have seen the post and shared it with others.
Why is outing dangerous?
LGBTQ+ youth are four times more likely than straight, cisgender youth to plan, consider, and commit suicide. The Trevor Project estimates that at least one LGBTQ+ youth between the ages of 13 and 24 attempts suicide every 45 seconds in the United States.
Coming out of the closet is a serious risk for LGBTQ+ youth. Adolescence is a stage in human development in which peer acceptance becomes highly prioritized.
Youth.gov found that 75 percent of the nearly 35,000 LGBTQ+ youth surveyed in 2021 experienced discrimination based on their sexual orientation or gender identity. These negative experiences include the following:
- Physical violence
- Rejection by schools
- Rejection by employers
- Rejection by their communities
Teens who are involuntarily outed may face extreme trauma based on the attitudes of their friends and family toward non-conforming sexual preferences and identities. Coming out of the closet is a deeply personal experience, and the time and place to do so is a decision that belongs solely to the individual.
What are the effects of outing?
When youth are allowed to come out on their own terms, they have an opportunity to prepare for the potential consequences. For example, they can enlist the support of accepting friends and family members ahead of time. They can come out in stages. They can determine how the information is presented.
When someone is outed against their will, everyone in their life finds out, and by a means contrary to how the teen had imagined. Being forcibly outed is traumatic and dangerous and may have detrimental consequences, such as:
- Physical and emotional abuse
- Homelessness due to parental rejection
- Increased anxiety
The risk of suicide is a real danger when someone is involuntarily outed — particularly teens. The National LGBTQ Task Force has identified a link between outing and suicide.
Examples of Outing
In September 2019, 16-year-old Channing Smith died by suicide after being outed by his ex-girlfriend. She had discovered explicit messages Channing had sent to another boy and sent screenshots to classmates on Snapchat and Instagram.
In 2010, 18-year-old Tyler Clementi committed suicide after his roommate secretly recorded his sexual encounter with another man and broadcast it over the internet.
In 1997, a police officer found 18-year-old Marcus Wayman, a high school football player, in a car with another teenage boy. The officer threatened to out him to his step-grandfather, the main authority figure in the teen’s life, with whom the teen had a close relationship. Believing the officer would make good on his threat, Marcus Wayman took his own life.
Is outing someone illegal?
According to the American Civil Liberties Union, it is illegal for a school to out a student, even to their parents. However, there are no laws governing outing on social media for anyone else.
On what social media platforms does outing usually happen?
Outing happens on all social media platforms. If you are concerned your teen could be forcibly outed, it is most likely to occur on the platforms your teen uses the most. Outing on social media is especially harmful because the news can spread quickly and even cross platforms. Even if the original post is deleted, it cannot be completely removed from the internet.
According to The Harvard Crimson, social media platforms like Facebook can cause people to be involuntarily outed. This happened to one student who RSVP’d to a queer dating event on Facebook. Unbeknownst to the teen, the event appeared on his profile where all of his friends and family could see it.
An NBC News investigation revealed that some social media communities are more supportive of the privacy needs of the LGBTQ+ community than others. According to the report, LGBTQ+ individuals felt unsafe using Facebook because they were more likely to be bullied or lectured. They preferred platforms like Twitter and Tumblr.
How can I protect my child from being outed on social media?
Unfortunately, there is little you can do as a parent to prevent your child from being outed on social media. However, you can protect your teen from some of the most dangerous effects of being outed.
Offer Your Child Unconditional Acceptance
The most important protective action you can take is to have an open discussion with your teen about their sexuality. Make sure your teen understands that you love and accept them regardless of their gender identity, gender expression, or sexual orientation.
Preemptively offering your acceptance helps alleviate one of the biggest fears closeted teens experience, which is rejection by their parents. It also assures your child that even if they face bullying and rejection from others, they can count on you to provide support and safety.
Teens who commit suicide believe they have no other way out of their crises. Being forcibly outed often creates this feeling in teens. By offering a safe haven, you provide your teen with an option other than suicide.
It is important not to assume your child is cisgender and heterosexual. Closeted teens can be remarkably adept at hiding their sexual orientation and gender identity from their parents.
Be Aware of the Signs of Cyberbullying
Outing is a form of cyberbullying, and a teen who has been involuntarily outed is likely experiencing additional cyberbullying as a result. The warning signs of cyberbullying include the following:
- Changes in appetite
- Sleep disturbances
- Low self-esteem
- Suicidal thoughts or attempts
The effects of cyberbullying can be far-reaching. Whether the victim’s sexual orientation has been publicly revealed or a private conversation or personal information has been shared, the experience is traumatic. You will likely notice a change in their behavior or physical health that may require professional intervention.
What to Do if Your Child Has Been Outed
If you suspect your teen has been outed, ask your teen directly if this has occurred. If your teen is experiencing severe distress as a result of having been outed, consider enlisting the assistance of a mental health counselor.
If you believe your child has been harmed by the effects of outing or any other type of cyberbullying, contact the Social Media Victims Law Center today for a free and confidential consultation.
Frequently Asked Questions
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Every case is unique. Our attorneys will work with your family to evaluate your potential case and help you evaluate whether filing a lawsuit or other legal proceeding is in your family’s best interest. Generally speaking, the types of cases we handle involve serious mental health effects, including attempted or completed suicide, eating disorders, inpatient mental health treatment, or sexual trafficking/exploitation that was caused by or contributed to through addictive or problematic social media use by teens and young adults.
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Matthew P. Bergman