A new study is confirming what a lot of us already know - that social influence is not causing more young people to identify as trans.

The research, released last week, wanted to test a “social contagion” theory from a controversial 2018 US study by Dr Lisa Littman. 

Social contagion is the spread of ideas, attitudes and behaviours from one person to another - to put it simply, it’s when everyone else is doing something, so you do it too. 

Littman’s study suggested young people who experienced conflict between their birth sex and gender identity “suddenly” during or after puberty were doing so because of social influence.  

She also claimed that young people assigned female at birth were more susceptible to this.

In 2019, Buzzfeed reported that Littman’s study has been used by conservative media outlets to raise doubts about gender diverse people’s experiences. 

Littman’s study has also been widely criticised by researchers and trans advocates especially over the methods used.

Social contagion theory is ‘anti trans propaganda’

National organiser of Gender Minorities Aotearoa, an organisation that supports transgender people of all ages in Aotearoa, Ahi Wi-Hongi says the social contagion theory “was always just anti-trans propaganda”.

“We know that people are coming out [as trans] younger because it’s safer to do that and because families are more supportive.”

Tabby Besley, managing director of InsideOUT - a charity that supports rainbow youth - agrees, saying more people are identifying as transgender due to an increased acceptance in society.

“While there’s still a long way to go, for previous generations it just wasn’t possible for people to live this way [which is why] we lost a lot of people in our communities due to things like suicide,” she says.  

“While it may seem that suddenly there's these big numbers [of people identifying as trans], we know people have always had these experiences. It just wasn’t possible to be open about it before, and a lot of people didn’t have the language previously.”

Here’s what the latest research says

The study analysed data from two Youth Risk Behaviour Surveys conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in the US which collects youth gender identity data across 16 states. About 100,000 young people take part in the surveys.

The 2017 survey found 2.4% of adolescents identified as trans or gender diverse, while the 2019 survey saw that number drop to 1.6% of respondents.  

Researchers say the proportion of young people assigned female at birth before coming out as transgender has also not increased, disputing Littman’s claims that this group was uniquely vulnerable to social influence.

The researchers also say Littman’s hypothesis doesn’t stand up and “should not be used to argue against the provision of gender-affirming medical care for adolescents”.

Besley says she’s pleased to see some research released on this topic.

“[Social contagion] is a myth that we hear a lot, you know, that it's a trend to be transgender,” she says. 

“We know from our experiences working with young people that that's not their experience. So, it's really great to have some research on that.”

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