Does Social Contagion Cause Teens to Identify as Transgender?

News stations have spent the last few years stoking debates about transgender individuals. From transgender people enlisting in the military to whether transgender people should be allowed to play sports to which restroom transgender people should use, the small but substantial portion of the population has faced intense public scrutiny from every direction.

An estimated 1.6 million people in the United States ages 13 and older identify as transgender. This number has remained steady over time according to The Williams Institute at UCLA School of Law.1 However, in recent years, the number of youth who identify as transgender almost doubled compared to previous estimates.

Today, almost one in five transgender individuals is between the ages of 13 and 17. This sudden surge of young people identifying as transgender fuels the ongoing media frenzy. This growing number of transgender teens, coupled with the excessive media coverage, has some parents concerned that social pressure is causing their teenagers to identify as transgender.

These concerns beg a series of questions:

First, is the concern valid?

Does social pressure cause teens to identify as transgender?

If so, how much does this pressure – called social contagion – have to do with the increased number of transgender youth?

And finally, how can you as a parent best support your child?

What does it mean to be transgender?

Transgender is an umbrella term that describes an individual whose gender identity or gender expression does not align with the societal expectations of the sex they were assigned at birth.2

  • Gender identity: A person’s internal feelings about or sense of their gender (male, female, non-binary, or something else)
  • Gender expression: How a person communicates their gender to others, using things such as clothing, behavior, voice, hairstyle, and mannerisms.

Previously, transgender people were thought to fall into one of two categories: male-to-female (MtF, born as male and transitioning to female) or female-to-male (FtM, born as female and transitioning to male). However, ongoing awareness, openness, and knowledge of transgender experiences have expanded the term to encompass other gender non-conforming identities. These include individuals who identify as:

  • Gender non-conforming
  • Androgynous
  • Genderqueer
  • Third gender
  • Two-spirit people

Sometimes it can be difficult to apply broad statements to transgender individuals because people have different understandings of what it means to be transgender. The best way to learn about a transgender person is to talk with them about their experience and how they choose to identify.

What is gender dysphoria?

Gender dysphoria refers to the psychological distress that results from a person’s conflicting feelings between their sex assigned at birth and their gender identity.3 While not every gender non-conforming person experiences gender dysphoria, it’s a common indicator that someone may be transgender.

The Recent Increase in Numbers of Transgender Youth

A study published by Dr. Lisa Littman in PLoS ONE in 2018 suggested that social contagion may be at play in the sudden increase of youth identifying as transgender.4 The study looked at an experience among adolescents that it referred to as rapid-onset gender dysphoria (ROGD). These children appeared to experience gender dysphoria later in their development than other transgender individuals.

Dr. Littman interviewed parents about their children’s experiences for her study. Most parents reported their children spent a lot of time on social media and other sites before coming out. Many also shared that their children were part of a peer group that included one or multiple friends experiencing gender dysphoria.

Since adolescents are in a period of such extreme change, the study indicated that social contagion played a notable role in these adolescents’ feelings of gender dysphoria. It also noted that youth assigned females at birth were disproportionately affected by ROGD. Dr. Littman suggested that increased social media usage and exposure to gender non-conforming peers may influence an adolescent’s shifting gender identity.

Is social contagion the cause of transgender teens?

People have pointed to Dr. Littman’s study over the past five years to support the idea that the growing number of teens identifying as transgender is the result of societal pressure. They imply that social media and peers are responsible for the surge in newly-identified transgender youth.

However, a new study published this month shows that Dr. Littman’s study does not reveal the whole story.5 Again, the study published in PLoS ONE showed that 82.8% of adolescents reporting gender dysphoria were assigned female at birth (AFAB). The newer study published in Pediatrics shows that the ratio of adolescents assigned male at birth (AMAB) and AFAB is much closer than Dr. Littman’s study implied.

Instead of using parent-reported data, the new study looked at data from Youth Risk Behavior Surveys. They found that the ratio of AMAB to AFAB adolescents was 1.5:1 in 2017 and 1.2:1 in 2019, a stark contrast from the 82.8 percent reported in Dr. Littman’s study. While validating the social contagion theory requires more research and evidence, this latest study rebuts on element, and shows that the recent increase in teens coming out as transgender does not disproportionately affect AFAB adolescents.

Transgender Youth Face More Pressing Problems

The Pediatrics study also suggests that emphasizing the social contagion factor distracts from another problem: the high rates of bullying that transgender and gender non-conforming adolescents face. While understanding the source of the surge in youth identifying as transgender is something to consider, it ignores and negates the daily struggles of thousands of adolescents.

Data from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) Youth Risk Behavior Survey (YRBS) shows that 45.4 percent of gender-diverse youth report experiencing bullying, compared to 28.7 percent of lesbian, gay, or bisexual youth, and 16.6 percent of heterosexual youth.

These staggering statistics are the reality that many transgender adolescents face every day.

Unconditional love and acceptance is the best way to support a child experiencing gender dysphoria. You may not understand what they’re going through, and you might believe it’s a phase. However, you should process these feelings and voice these thoughts with someone who isn’t your teen.

If you tell your teen you think what they’re going through is a phase caused by peer pressure, i.e. social contagion, then it’s likely they’ll feel like you’re shutting them down and invalidating their experience, which can cause them psychological and emotional harm.

To understand what your teen feels, we recommend learning and understanding everything you can about the transgender experience, rather than implying their experience is a phase they will get over. Instead, find love and acceptance for your child. When you lead with love and acceptance, they’ll trust you to help them learn and grow throughout adolescence and become the best possible version of themselves.

References

  1. The Williams Institute at UCLA School of Law. (2022). How Many Adults and Youth Identify as Transgender in the United States?.
  2. American Psychological Association. (2015). Transgender People, Gender Identity, and Gender Expression.
  3. American Psychiatric Association. (2022). What is Gender Dysphoria?.
  4. PLoS ONE. (2018). Rapid-onset gender dysphoria in adolescents and young adults.
  5. Pediatrics. (2022). Sex Assigned at Birth Ratio Among Transgender and Gender Diverse Adolescents in the United States.