Give Us The Floor: Supporting LGBTQIA+ Youth with Online Group Chats

by Jenna Abrams

A Case Study from the Connected Wellbeing Impact Studio

“It feels like no longer being alone.”
– Youth participant on their experience with Give Us The Floor

One of the most difficult challenges youth face is feeling isolated, with COVID exacerbating what was already being described as an epidemic of loneliness for youth. A 2022 CDC report found that nearly 45% of teens reported persistently feeling “sad or hopeless” in the prior year, and over 25% reported considering attempting suicide. These statistics are even more distressing for LGBTQIA+ students – the same report shows nearly 75% of LGBTQIA+ students feeling persistent hopelessness or sadness, and 50% considering suicide. For LGBTQIA+ youth, the struggles of everyday teendom can weigh even heavier, especially if they’re not out to anyone in their lives. Who should they talk to if they’re questioning their sexuality or gender identity? What about if they have a crush on someone? How to handle anxiety, stigma, bullying at school? What about how to choose a new name for trans youth? The fear of judgment or ostracization is real, but youth need spaces to be themselves. Give Us The Floor, which builds, moderates, and trains youth to facilitate supportive online group chats specifically for LGBTQIA+ youth, aims to create those spaces. As one user put it, the chats act as a ‘safety net,’ providing a community where these youth know they will be seen and understood.

The group chats have three main categories: “LGBTQIA+,” “Mental Health,” and “Trans and Nonbinary” (later in 2024, this will be expanding to include ‘Anxiety/Depression”, “Identity Difficulties/Self Esteem”, and “Neurodivergence”). Under these umbrellas, group chats focus on things like sexual orientation, stigma surrounding LGBTQIA+ identities, navigating coming out journeys, and many more issues that are important to LGBTQIA+ youth; gender euphoria and dysphoria, questioning gender identity, trans-specific health needs, choosing a new name, pronoun experimentation, self-acceptance, and so much more that trans and nonbinary youth want to talk about; and youth’ experiences and feelings on mental health topics like anxiety and depression, the stigma surrounding mental health diagnoses, neurodiversity, discrimination, and more. Safety is a priority: the signup process links to crisis resources, and trained adult advisors with clinical mental health experience are active on the platform, ready to respond to situations that need additional support when flagged by a youth moderator or participant (GUTF includes an easily accessible reporting feature to facilitate this calling in of adult moderators when necessary). Additionally, all channels are group chats – private conversations are not enabled.

About the Connected Wellbeing Initiative

The Connected Wellbeing Initiative brings together researchers, designers, educators, and funders to accelerate youth and community-powered innovations for fostering wellbeing in a digitally connected world. The Initiative’s Impact Studio supports early- to mid-stage innovations that model the core principles and approaches of connected wellbeing:

Principles
  • Young people are leaders and sources of strategies, as well as beneficiaries.
  • Caring relationships and communities are tapped as essential supports for wellbeing.
  • Solutions grow from youth identities, interests, lived experience, culture, and communities.
Approaches
  • Connecting to people who get you
  • Harnessing tech for equity and inclusion
  • Diversifying and amplifying youth voice

Give Us The Floor is one of 11 innovations in the Impact Studio that benefits from personalized advising, capacity building opportunities, and cross-sector connections to accelerate impact and build shared purpose. This case study highlights some of the innovative and meaningful ways that Give Us The Floor supports youth wellbeing in the digital age.

Between the launch of the virtual platform in spring 2018 and the end of 2023, Give Us The Floor served over 12,000 youth spanning every state across the U.S. In regular surveys conducted by GUTF, youth reported the platform as having a positive impact on their ability to manage personal struggles, helping them to feel less isolated, and supporting their overall self confidence. Youth asked to describe what GUTF means to them have said things like “confidence, friends, support,” “happiness and motivation,” “sense of belonging,” “purpose, connection,” and “joy, because I get to be able to help other people as well.” 

This youth-helping-youth structure is key to GUTF’s strategy. In this case study, we look at how GUTF’s platform harnesses technology to broaden impact, and how their peer-to-peer support model works to elevate youth voice and position young people as sources of valuable support for one another.

History and Context

Valerie Grison-Alsop started Give Us The Floor in 2015 as an in-person teen program in San Francisco, with the goal of creating a space where youth could feel safe to be themselves and connect with other youth in a supportive, non-academic environment. But she quickly observed some challenges to the success of that program. The reality of transportation and home life difficulties often interfered with youth’s ability to make it to the physical space. More importantly, Valerie felt that youth struggled to build trusting relationships and share difficult things with people they saw regularly. “[I noticed] young people don’t want to share their secrets with the people they meet every day,” she says. A teen struggling with coming out, for example, might want to talk, but isn’t comfortable with anyone in their community. Valerie wondered if a virtual space might provide something an in-person program could not – the potential for anonymity. She had experience in building virtual communities for young people for a couple projects she had helmed before pivoting to nonprofit work, and had at one point been mentored by the founder of Second Life. This provided her with the foundation to remake Give Us The Floor as a virtual platform, which is how it operates today.

GUTF was initially geared towards struggling youth in general. But a year after it went virtual, data from surveys conducted by GUTF showed that over 50% of involved youth identified as LGBTQIA+. By the third year, it was 85%. GUTF listened to the data, and refocused the platform specifically towards supporting LGBQTIA+ youth. Specializing in this demographic after going virtual deepened GUTF’s impact, providing youth across the country who might otherwise be isolated in their circumstances with a caring and supportive community. 

“Youth are better at helping other youth.”
Valerie Grison-Alsop, founder of Give Us The Floor 

Today, GUTF continues to grow, working towards their goal of serving 25,000 youth by 2025. Their model continues to focus on combating isolation in LGBTQIA+ youth, with target outcomes centered on youth building self confidence and developing mutually supportive relationships. GUTF’s approach is built on four main ideas: (1) that positive peer support “improves social integration and self confidence,” (2) that a sense of belonging supports “physical and emotional health as well as resiliency,” (3) that sharing and connecting with others who share one’s experiences improves ability to weather challenges, and (4) that supporting others has positive effects on relational skills and wellbeing.

Connected Wellbeing in Action

In the sections that follow, we share details on the design of GUTF’s platform and approach, which support LGBTQIA+ youth and their wellbeing through creating a safe space for adolescents to be themselves and empowering youth as leaders for others like them.

By youth for youth: Training youth to facilitate supportive group chats

Give Us The Floor is grounded in the principles of the peer helper movement, which was built on the research of Dr. Barbara Varenhorst. Dr. Varenhorst, a friend of GUTF and honorary board member until her death in 2021, found that youth are more likely to go to their friends than adults for help. But while it appeared youth were more likely to seek help from their peers, their peers weren’t necessarily equipped to help them. Dr. Varenhorst devoted a career of educational research to addressing that gap: teaching youth how to help each other. Give Us The Floor emulates these principles in its structure, training youth who have participated in and benefited from the group chats themselves to become facilitators of those same group chats, acting as sources of support and care for others.

GUTF operates under the tagline “by youth, for youth,” and works hard to operate by that ethos:

  • In the architecture of the chats themselves: Designed in an iterative process involving a core group of youth from the in-person days of Give Us The Floor’s programming in San Francisco, each version tested by the youth and feedback incorporated into the next version.
  • In the evolution of the platform and the resources offered: Current platform users are surveyed when they join; at one, three, six, and twelve-month intervals; and when they stop using the platform about their experiences, with questions probing for what GUTF could do better. GUTF also has a policy of never launching a new feature without consulting the community of users.
  • In their training of youth chat facilitators: GUTF aims to empower youth to help others and help them to build important relationship skills, while providing a safe space where adolescents are more likely to feel safe sharing because a chat is being run by someone like them.

Example of the GUTF supportive group chat app experience.

Across the board at Give Us The Floor, youth don’t just participate in a space that was built for them by adults – they are leaders in a space that was designed for them, with youth like them; a space that prioritizes their needs and voices as it continues to evolve.

Youth leadership development is a key piece of Give Us The Floor’s work. Youth trained as group chat facilitators are responsible for guiding the conversation, making sure community safety standards are being respected, and creating a chat environment where everyone feels safe and supported. Training includes online modules, a mock-chat program in the app, and video conferences with an adult advisor. Facilitators are able to earn up to 5 community service hours per month as a facilitator, providing them experience that they can include on college applications, in addition to the training and learning opportunities they’re getting as peer support leaders. If youth are interested in getting more involved, after a few months of being a facilitator they can be invited to become a Senior Facilitator. Senior Facilitators join other groups to support youth facilitators and positively impact the conversation further. They earn a monthly stipend and additional hours of community service.

A look into the training for peer facilitators of GUTF Supportive Group Chats.

Trained adults are there to step in when needed, but the youth facilitators and members in each chat are the architects of the conversation. “Youth are better at helping other youth,” Valerie explains. “When they’re in trouble, it’s easier for them to talk with other youth. It helps the others, but it helps [them] too.” Recent research has backed up this assertion that peer to peer support in online spaces helps with youth wellbeing. Valerie also confirms that adolescents most frequently find GUTF through others their age or their own exploration on social media, not through adults in their lives:

“We come across people who say, ‘Oh, that program would be great for my nephew, for my daughter’, for my whatever – but when the service is recommended by adults, [young people] never sign up. It’s really amazing. They have to find out about it by themselves.”

Research Background: Youth leadership and voice

A growing body of evidence indicates how centering programs on youth leadership and voice is an effective way of engaging youth and spreading new programs and behaviors. Asset and action based approaches that tap the unique power that young people have in making change and mobilizing their peers are particularly well suited to the strengths of youth from marginalized communities. GUTF’s ways of engaging youth reflect well-established and research-backed approaches to mobilizing youth for social change, such as youth participatory action research, youth organizing, and transformative student voice.

Tailored, just in time: Support for diverse needs

Adolescents vary in terms of why they’re using the space, but everyone has one thing in common: they want to talk. Loneliness and isolation are common themes across all group chats. “I would say that the common thing is feeling isolated, having no access to support,” Valerie says. “Being able to share when they freak out, when they’re in crisis, or when they’re just happy – [youth] that are isolated don’t have a way to share happy stuff, or even accomplishments.” GUTF aims to offer youth a place where they can feel surrounded by family and community to share their joyful moments as well as seek support during difficult ones. 

Users have cited the group chats as helping with panic attacks, incidents of suicidal ideation or even suicide attempts (GUTF Adult Advisors intervene and send emergency services if they believe a suicide attempt is happening – more than one of these situations have resulted in a saved life), or helping with overall mental wellbeing during difficult periods. Youth have reported support specific to struggles around identity and acceptance: support with transphobic relatives, with the aftermath of coming out to their parents, and support for trans youth in picking a new name for themselves. The group chats create an environment where young people feel cared for and able to discuss things they may struggle to otherwise. 

Image: Post with teen testimonial from GUTF’s Instagram account.

GUTF user testimonials reflect this:
  • “The group allows for a safe space where thoughts aren’t just respectfully answered but validated.”
  • “I definitely feel less lonely”
  • “Since joining the group chat I’ve slowly got back to being myself more and realizing that people do care about me”
  • “The group is helpful because no one at school really understands depression or is to[o] stigmatized to talk about it. I felt outcasted and misunderstood, and this group helped me understand I am not alone”
  • “I have a whole group of people who care about me and who want me to be okay, and it’s more than I could ever wish for”
  • “I don’t have the fear of being judged by my group like I generally do in social situations.”

Participants also describe the benefits of connecting with others who understand them: “Talking to the others helped me realize how I actually felt, and it helped me get past those hard feelings that I was feeling,” shared one user. Another youth shared, “They’ve helped me express myself as I am and I gained lots of friends at school!” 

A common theme among feedback from youth involved in GUTF is that the group chats create a sense of acceptance akin to family – as one youth wrote,

“I feel like I won’t be judged for being who I am, and that I finally have a family that accepts me.”

Research Background: Peer support for wellbeing

Research by the Trevor Project shines a spotlight on the harassment and mental health risks that LGBTQ youth face, and the important role of safe and supportive online spaces in times of crisis. When populated by teens with shared experiences and backgrounds, online spaces can be more welcoming and supportive than offline peer groups, providing opportunities to connect with other queer youth. GUTF is designed to provide this kind of accessible online support. Research shows that peer support plays an important role in fostering mental health and is particularly important during adolescence.

Using technology to broaden impact: GUTF’s social media presence

Adolescents are online more than ever, and turning to virtual spaces for learning, socializing, and exploring their own identities. The initial shifting of GUTF’s program to a virtual format allowed the organization to meet young people where they already were spending time: online. But technology plays a crucial role in Give Us the Floor’s operation in ways far beyond the app where the chats are hosted.

Youth typically find GUTF through social media. The organization’s social media presence is a big piece of their platform and how they keep their community connected. Their Instagram has over 16000 followers and shares a wide variety of content, everything from regular invitations to join the group chats to mental health awareness resources, conversation-starting graphics on topics youths can relate to, and personal stories from community members. Though many youths in the GUTF community are struggling, there is a real emphasis on connecting them through joy and the simple act of sharing their lives and interests with others in a space free of judgment, such as posts inviting young people to share their current playlists, or humorous memes on experiences LGBTQIA+ youth can relate to. All of this content contributes to GUTF’s goals of combating isolation, encouraging caring relationships, and building a sense of belonging in LGBTQIA+ youth.

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Images: examples of content from GUTF’s Instagram.

The social media channels also act as a space for youth to ask questions, share feedback, and tell GUTF staff what they need out of the platform in order for it to best serve them. For example, one user commented on an Instagram post inviting young people to join the group chats: “As a queer teen my parents can see what apps are on my phone. How do I disguise it?” GUTF staff responded directly, letting the teen know that they didn’t have a solution yet but one was in the works, and pointing the teen to the Trevor Project for other resources. GUTF is constantly iterating to improve their platform to meet the needs of the youth it serves, and their social media presence is another way youth can share their feedback.
GUTF’s YouTube channel also shares youth perspectives in the form of videos where youth respond to prompts about a vast array of topics that impact their lives: how lack of sleep affects their functioning and their emotional statethe difficulty and importance of setting personal boundariesbody image and insecuritiesself-love and acceptance, and many more. These videos make valuable youth perspectives accessible to the public, where other youth who may feel isolated and alone can encounter them and potentially connect with GUTF’s virtual community of support.

Research Background: Meeting youth where they are

Too often, health-oriented programs and technologies designed by educators and researchers are not accessed or taken up by young people. Research has documented numerous disconnects. Products are rarely tailored to youth language and culture, and they are difficult to discover, particularly for young people who are underserved by traditional health systems. GUTF addresses this challenge by meeting youth where they are in social media spaces, and sharing relatable, youth-produced content.

Conclusion

Give Us The Floor’s platform has already reached thousands of young people. As they move forward, with the goal of growing their impact significantly in the next few years, GUTF will continue to focus on combating loneliness, elevating peer-to-peer support, and helping youth cultivate a sense of belonging while developing social and relational skills. 

GUTF is so much more than a series of group chats for youth– it’s a place where adolescents can not only find support, but learn to be sources of support for others, empowering them to be active participants in not just their own wellbeing, but their peers’. In its focus on the LGBQTIA+ population, GUTF affirms and elevates youths’ identities, allowing them to flourish and be celebrated amongst their community.

This case study was produced in partnership with Give Us The Floor and the Connected Learning Lab at UC Irvine, with the support of Brian Cross, research consultant; Mimi Ito, Connected Learning Lab Director at UC Irvine; and Krithika Jagannath, postdoctoral scholar at UC Berkeley’s Institute of Human Development. We also thank the communications and web team at the Connected Learning Alliance for their work on layout and design.