Mermaids supports transgender and gender-diverse children and their families and has seen an increasing demand for its services during the third national lockdown.
The charity warns that a "hostile" atmosphere on social media platforms can prevent young people from sharing thoughts about their gender identity to family and friends, leading to heightened anxiety and mental health issues.
It comes as the Yorkshire Evening Post's Call It Out campaign calls on the city to unite in the fight against online abuse, sharing real-life stories of victims of hate attacks and online bullying.
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The NSPCC has highlighted the devastating impact of cyberbullying on children and young people, particularly for those who are bullied because of their gender identity or sexuality.
And Kerry Richards, a service operator for Mermaids' Leeds-based helpline, said witnessing hate speech online can be just as harmful for gender-diverse young people.
Kerry said: “We see less direct bullying than people might expect. It’s more the cultural and the hostile atmosphere on some social media platforms, the negativity towards trans and gender-diverse people.
“That has an impact on young people, some are absolutely terrified to come out and to discuss their worries with family and friends.
“Their own family might be engaging in some of that negativity because it’s so easy to share negative posts with a click of a button.
“That causes genuine fear, real anxiety. If a family member shares that, without knowledge that their child or family member is going through thoughts and feelings about their own gender, then it just sets them back and they think - I can’t come out because my parents or family have shared this.”
The Mermaids helpline offers 24/7 crisis support for young people across the country and Kerry has supported children who have had confidential information on their gender identity used to bully them by their peers.
But Kerry says it is more often adults who engage in sharing negative posts against transgender people and she has urged social media users to be mindful of what they share online.
“Lockdown has shown a massive increase in our contacts," she said.
"Some young people feel like they can be themselves in school, their friends and young people are open-minded and they’re not pre-judged by their gender or sexuality. We find it is so much harder for them to be open at home
"We are a listening ear and we tell young people to keep being proud of who they are and to gather as much support as they can.
"LGBT groups are their lifeline and it’s a shame they’re missing out on that face-to-face LGBT youth groups at the moment.
"We try to encourage children to have those conversations with family, but it can be uncomfortable for some children.”
Mermaids itself has been targeted by online abuse and the charity's social media lead is calling for more action from social media platforms to tackle the issue.
Jake Edwards wants blocking features to be simplified to make it easier to ban trolls from targeting the Mermaids Facebook page.
He said: “We don’t get a lot of hate day-to-day, but sometimes one tweet will blow up and we have unmanageable comments.
“It’s really quite disturbing, all of them violating the terms and conditions of social media platforms.
“We have had parents say they were worried about the comments, worried about their kids or other young trans people seeing them.”
Jake echoes Kerry's concerns of the impact of negative social media posts on gender-diverse young people and runs virtual help sessions, where he gives advice on how to stay safe online.
He added: “We encourage young people to seek out things they are actively interested in and that bring more positivity into their social media experience, instead of seeing things that they feel like they should be looking at but make them upset.
“Young people are often seeing the same conversations and the same bad news and it whittles away at people quite slowly.
“They might not realise until they hit a point of it being overwhelming, they realise that in the last few weeks every day they’ve been hearing about something that really negatively impacts their mental health.”
Children, young people and parents can contact the Mermaids help centre online or on 0808 801 0400.
• The Call It Out campaign by the Yorkshire Evening Post was launched in July. It is sharing real-life experiences of people from all walks of life who have encountered abusive online behaviour and asking our readers to help play their part in reporting it to account admins, social media platforms and, where needed, the police. The campaign has also been highlighted by MP Holly Lynch in Parliament.
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