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Study: Bullying decreases over time
by Margo Anderson
2013-02-27

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Illinois Safe Schools Alliance’s Shannon Sullivan.


A recent study in Pediatrics has found that bullying of LGB youth really does decrease over time.

More than 4,000 English teens were interviewed annually from 2004 to 2010. One hundred eighty-seven of these teens identified themselves as LGB. Fifty-seven percent of lesbian and bisexual girls and 52 percent of gay and bisexual boys reported being bullied at ages 13-14. However, by the ages of 19-20, only 6 percent of lesbian and bisexual girls and 9 percent of gay and bisexual boys reported that they were being bullied.

However, when considered relative to their heterosexual peers, the findings are more complex. At the ages of 13-14, LGB boys and girls were twice as likely as heterosexual boys and girls to be bullied. But by the ages of 19-20, lesbian and bisexual girls were only as likely while gay and bisexual boys were four times as likely to be bullied. That is, bullying gets comparatively better for girls but comparatively worse for boys.

Study co-researcher Joseph Robinson told Windy City Times, "Our research provides strong evidence that it gets better, and yet, there is still room for improvement."

Although this study was conducted in England, Robinson said, "It's highly probable that we would see similar patterns in the U.S. Our hypothesis about the different trends among males and females was based on prior research (mainly conducted in the US)."

Shannon Sullivan of the Illinois Safe Schools Alliance told Windy City Times, "We've long known that bullying in general [in the United States] peaks during the middle school years and tends to lessen as students get older." Thus, there is reason to believe that these results do generalize to the United States.

These results may reflect not only a change in bullying due to age but also a change due to societal increases in acceptance of LGB individuals and less of a social acceptance of bullying. As Robinson notes, there is no way to disentangle these effects; however, he does say that "since 2010 (the last year of this study), the 'It Gets Better' project has started, same-sex marriage has become legal in several additional states, and the gay rights movement has picked up additional momentum. So I would expect to see more of an effect of the gay-rights movement on anti-gay bullying after 2010."

It is also true that many teens have not yet fully discovered their sexuality or may not feel comfortable identifying as LGB publicly, even if they would do so privately. This can introduce "noise" into the study, making it more difficult to obtain clear results. To reduce this problem, participants were only interviewed about LGB status in the last two years of the study. That is, 57 percent of girls and 52 percent of boys who later identified as LGB were bullied at age 13-14, before they had identified as such. Said Robinson, "By asking about LGB identification at later waves, the [survey] avoids some of the challenges regarding the truthfulness of responses to LGB identification questions posed of younger children ... but, of course, it doesn't quite capture identification during high school." However, as Robinson points out, "There were significant differences ... and it is certainly interesting ... that LGB identification after high school is a significant predictor of bullying during high school."

The study also stated that peer victimization is associated with suicide attempts, anxiety, psychotic symptoms and sexual risk. The authors found that higher levels of victimization explained about half of the emotional distress in LGB youth. As Robinson notes in the article, "We find that bullying during high school is related to emotional distress during young adulthood, which suggests we should focus on reducing bullying early on because these experiences during high school can have lasting consequences."

And Sullivan mentioned that it is "very important to ensure bullying prevention work inclusive of sexual orientation and gender identity is done in the K-8 years. ... School personnel need to be given the tools to intervene in the language and prevent it from happening again."

Sullivan also noted that "providing quality professional development to school personnel on addressing sexual orientation and gender identity, ensuring all school/district policies protect based on sexual orientation and gender identity and the school community knows about those policies, and having a gay-straight alliance or similar club in the school all contribute to a more positive school climate.

"There is also a bit of new research showing that curricular inclusion of sexual orientation and gender identity topics in schools also contributes to a more positive school climate."

Robinson said he is hopeful: "I think the gay-rights movement will have an impact on reducing the magnitude of the LGB—straight bullying disparity—but only time will tell."

The full study can be accessed at pediatrics.aappublications.org/content/early/2013/01/29/peds.2012-2595.full.pdf+html .


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