High school students who identify as lesbian, gay and bisexual tend to face higher rates of bullying in school than their heterosexual peers. But a new study suggests that things get better for these young people, with harassment declining as they get older and leave school.
The improvements, however, are relative for gay and bisexual boys, who face a greater likelihood of being victimized than heterosexual peers.
Overall, the amount of bullying (name calling, threats of physical violence and actual acts of violence) experienced in adolescence declines for all students as they get older, regardless of gender or sexual identity, finds the study in today's Pediatrics.
Researchers analyzed data collected from 4,135 teens and young adults in England over seven years. At ages 18-20, about 5% self-identified as lesbian, gay or bisexual. Researchers looked back at their responses at earlier ages and found 57% of lesbian and bisexual girls said they were bullied at ages 13-14, vs. 6% at 18-20. And 52% of gay and bisexual boys were bullied at 13-14, vs. 9% at 18-20.
Among those who self-identified as heterosexual, 40% of girls said they were bullied at 13-14, vs. 5% at 18-20. And 38% of boys reported being bullied at 13-14, vs. 2% at 18-20.
"It gets better for lesbian and bisexual females, relatively, but for gay and bisexual males, relative to their straight male peers, it gets worse after high school," says study author Joseph Robinson, assistant professor of educational psychology at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. "Their rates of being bullied are not dropping as quickly."
The study also found that LGB youth showed more emotional distress - unhappiness, depression, low self-esteem - than heterosexuals. But only about half of that disparity could be attributed to bullying, says Robinson. He says that suggests "broader issues of school and societal messages" also need to be addressed.
Although the data was collected from young people in England, "we don't think the results would be very different if done on U.S. populations," says Robinson. The situation there "mirrors what we're seeing here," he says.
This study "helps quantify some of the concerns that mental health professionals have had for some time now, that stress related to LGB-identify does have long-term impacts on the health and experience of people over time," says Justin Sitron, an assistant professor at Widener University's Center for Human Sexuality Studies in Chester, Pa. He was not involved in the study.
"It calls to action school professionals and our culture to really think about the effects that negative messages about LGB-identified folks have on young people and the course of the their lives," he says.
Michelle Healy, USA TODAY