A growing body of evidence suggests that the recent surge in individuals who identify as transgender may be caused in part by peer influence, a theory that some transgender advocates are beginning to acknowledge.
Many trans activists argue that transgenderism is becoming more prevalent because growing social acceptance has allowed more transgender people, many of whom would otherwise keep their gender identity a secret, to live openly.
Meanwhile, critics, particularly critics of youth gender transitions, have argued that the growing rate of transgender identification in adolescents and the changing demographics of transgender people are evidence that peer influence is driving young children to identify as transgender when they otherwise would not.
Gender dysphoria, described as a discomfort with one’s biological sex, is often explained to be the motivation behind a person’s transition. According to Reuters, this used to be observed almost entirely in males, but this trend has fully reversed over the past 15 years. Among adolescents seeking transgender medical interventions, biological females outnumber biological males by a factor of 2.5 to 7.1.
Medical professionals have begun to argue that the drastic change is driven by peer influence.
Dr. Erica Anderson, a psychologist who works with transgender children, claimed that peer influence, particularly that seen through social media related to teenage social isolation, is at least partially to blame for hugely increased rates of gender identity issues among adolescent girls.
“I think the people who are on the far right who say it’s all social influence are wrong. But people on the far left who say there can be no social influence are also wrong,” Anderson said. “Adolescents are very susceptible to peer influence, so to suggest there can be no influence on young people is preposterous and flies in the face of everything we know about teenagers.”
A study published in the scientific journal Plos One surveyed 256 parents whose children experienced rapid onset of gender dysphoria. It revealed that 86.7% of these adolescents either started spending more time online or were in a friend group with at least one other transgender person before they identified as transgender.
The study was meant to explore reports from parents of a shift in their child’s gender identity, that seemed to be linked to peer influence.
In 36.8% of the friendship groups reported in the study, parent participants said the majority of its members identified as transgender. Parents also reported a decline in their children’s mental health and in parent-child relationships following adoption of transgender identities.
Meanwhile, medical records of 330 million Americans analyzed by Komodo Health Inc. revealed that diagnoses of childhood gender dysphoria rose 70% from 2020 to 2021. From 2017 to 2021, childhood diagnoses more than doubled, according to the same data set.
Anderson, who is transgender, is largely supportive of gender transitions, but has previously voiced criticism of doctors who put minors through “gender-affirming surgeries” without thorough psychological screening. Anderson rejects the notion that surging rates of transgender affiliation are driven wholly by social acceptance.
“I do not believe that there was this huge hidden number of transgender people in previous generations,” Anderson said.
The World Professional Association for Transgender Health has actively supported medical interventions for children who believe they are transgender; however, they acknowledged the social contagion phenomenon in its new standards of care.
These guidelines acknowledged two major signs of possible peer influence, a sudden surge in “nonbinary” identities as well as a growing number of patients who didn’t experience gender dysphoria in childhood.
“For a select subgroup of young people, susceptibility to social influence impacting gender may be an important differential to consider,” the standards of care read. “However, caution must be taken to avoid assuming these phenomena occur prematurely in an individual adolescent.”
WPATH carefully avoids suggesting doctors should be skeptical of young people’s transgender identities or assume social influence is driving them.
“One of the false narratives is that young people are being lured in and directed somehow against their will to become transgender, which is not at all the case,” Dr. Dan Karasic, professor emeritus of psychiatry at the University of California San Francisco and lead author of the mental health chapter in WPATH’s new Standards of Care, told Reuters.
A growing group of so-called detransitioners, people who underwent medical procedures to change their genders, but have come to regret it and attempted to change back, have rallied against childhood transitions, with many admitting they were influenced by online communities and social media.
“I would definitely say social media played a role in keeping the process of everything going, as well as some issues with being groomed and preyed upon by people online,” said one 20-year-old detransitioner, known only as Luka.
Social media site TikTok is flooded with content promoting medical interventions, including surgeries, as the solution to common adolescent issues, such as discomfort with one’s body.
“Rising rates of transgender identification are driven by a combination of factors: the pandemic, social isolation and a huge upswing in consumption of social media. Deplorably, there are medical providers on TikTok telling kids that if they’re unhappy with their body, maybe they’re in the wrong body and should consider transition,” Anderson said. “It’s horrible that kids are getting this kind of advice from unvetted strangers on the internet, most of whom have no medical qualifications.”