Analyzing YouTube video messages from the “It Gets Better” campaign aimed at gay youth, researchers found this group was most comforted by messages that not only supported them but advocated for social change.
The new study, published in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, not only confirms the power of speaking up for those facing prejudice but also underlines the importance of the message itself.
“Like many people, I was fascinated and inspired when I saw the grassroots online movement that started in late 2010 of people posting video messages to teenagers who faced prejudice and harassment based on their actual or presumed sexual orientation,” said Aneeta Rattan, Ph.D., of London Business School.
“I was not just moved as an individual, but as a researcher because this behavior — publicly addressing prejudice toward another group and communicating support for members of that group — is so rare that there is not a clear body of psychological science on it.”
Rattan and her co-investigator, the late Nalini Ambady, Ph.D., of Stanford University, decided to use the YouTube videos to explore the content and impact of such “intergroup” communication.
“Social media is a new frontier for communicating intergroup attitudes,” Rattan says. In contrast, past research has shown that majority group members rarely confront prejudice in person.
Rattan and Ambady analyzed the content of the 50 most viewed videos with the #ItGetsBetter hashtag, which together were viewed more than 15 million times.
“We wanted to capture the complexity of people’s naturalistic communications, but we also wanted to be able to test for systematic differences in what people said,” Rattan said.
They “coded” the messages in the videos as either: messages of comfort, of social connection, or of social change.
“Just saying, ‘it gets better,’ would be counted as a message of comfort,” Rattan said.
Social connection messages focused on the idea that lesbian, gay, bisexual, and questioning (LGBQ) teenagers targeted by prejudice would find social acceptance in the future. Social change messages focused on the idea that the situation can, should, or will change.
The study, as published in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, found that while all the messages communicated comfort, and many included messages about social connection, only 22 percent mentioned social change.
An additional analysis of university students’ written messages confirmed that social change messages were least frequent.
These findings conform to a body of previous research showing that majority group members focus more on interpersonal relationships rather than empowerment in their interactions with stigmatized minorities.
Merely knowing the content of the messages was not enough, however; the researchers also wanted to understand how the messages were perceived both by the targets of the prejudice and majority group members. They asked self-identified LGBQ participants to evaluate either a social connection-focused or a social change-focused message, as well as examined heterosexuals’ perceptions of the two messages.
“Our findings showed that intergroup support messages that included ideas about social change were more comforting to LGBQ participants than those that included ideas about social connection,” Rattan said.
“This suggests that there is a benefit to communicating ideas about social change more often.”
Interestingly, the heterosexual participants did not note a difference between the social connection and social change messages.
The fact that they saw the messages as equally comforting suggests that YouTube messages were not skewed toward social connection because people thought that would be more effective. It also highlights the difference in the impact of the messages on targets of prejudice versus non-targets.
“Because LGBQ participants reacted differently to the two messages while heterosexuals did not, we know that the psychological dynamics have to do with the difference in perspective between targets and non-targets, rather than the speaker vs. listener difference,” Rattan said.
In the end, all the messages comforted the LGBQ youth, she said. “The act of speaking out to address anti-LGBQ prejudice directed at teenagers mattered,” Rattan said.
“What was really amazing was that LGBQ youth were maximally comforted when support messages raised the possibility of social change.”