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Bullying 'gets better' for most - but not all - teens, study says

Joseph Robinson
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L. Brian Stauffer

While bullying tends to peak at age 13-14 and decline sharply as youth progress through high school, boys who are gay/bisexual are bullied at significantly higher rates than their heterosexual peers after leaving school, suggests a new study by Joseph P. Robinson, left, and Dorothy Espelage, both faculty members in the College of Education.

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2/4/2013 | Sharita Forrest, News Editor | 217-244-1072; slforres@illinois.edu

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — Bullied teens often are assured that “it gets better.” And a new study suggests that bullying does, indeed, tend to decline as teens progress through high school and move toward adulthood.

Dorothy Espelage
Dorothy Espelage, the child development chair in the department of educational psychology, was a
co-author on the study. | Photo by L. Brian Stauffer

However, boys who identify as gay or bisexual report significantly higher rates of bullying than their heterosexual peers after leaving high school, higher even than heterosexual boys who reported nearly identical rates of victimization during school.

The study, in the Feb. 4 edition of the journal Pediatrics, examined developmental trends in bullying and emotional distress among British teens over several years. The researchers found that bullying peaked for all youth, regardless of gender or sexual orientation, when participants were 13 or 14 and significantly declined over time.

At age 13-14, the first years of the study, 57 percent of lesbian/bisexual girls and 52 percent of gay/bisexual boys reported being bullied. By age 19-20, just 6 percent of girls and 9 percent of boys reported peer victimization.

While both heterosexual and gay/bisexual boys experienced drops in victimization after high school, the decrease was larger for heterosexual boys. And gay/bisexual boys reported being bullied at four times the rate of their heterosexual peers after leaving school.

“If you’re looking at absolute levels of bullying, then yes, it does get better for most LGB youth,” said Joseph P. Robinson, an educational psychologist in the College of Education at the University of Illinois and lead author of the study. “But then if we look at relative rates of bullying, comparing LGB youth to heterosexual youth, then the answer gets a little more complicated. It suggests it gets better for lesbian/bisexual females over time, but in relative terms it gets worse for gay/bisexual males. It’s important to keep in mind that bullying rates decline for gay and bisexual males, but they decline to very low levels for straight males around age 18.”

Although lesbian or bisexual girls were about twice as likely as heterosexual females to be bullied throughout high school, the rates of victimization for both groups of girls were comparable after leaving school.

“It’s an interesting pattern,” Robinson said. “The data suggest that during high school, what mattered more for whether students were bullied was not their gender, but whether they were LGB- or straight-identified.

“Then after high school what mattered more was the interaction between gender and sexual identity. That is, for girls, sexual identity didn’t matter – straight-identified girls were bullied as often as lesbian- or bisexual-identified girls, on average. But for boys, sexual identity seemed to matter quite a bit, such that gay- and bisexual-identified boys were bullied far more often than straight-identified boys.”

The study is believed to be the first longitudinal study to explore rates of peer victimization and emotional distress among lesbian/gay/bisexual youth. Robinson and his co-authors used data from the Longitudinal Study of Young People in England, an annual study conducted by the Department for Education in the United Kingdom from 2004-2010.

Data collection included interviews with the youth every year as well as with their parents and school administrators during the first four years. Students were 13-14 years old when the study began and 19-20 years of age when it concluded.

Under the British education system, compulsory schooling typically ends when students are 15-16 years old.

To reduce the possibility of differential race-, or ethnicity-based bullying, the researchers restricted their sample to 4,135 youth who identified as “white-British” and participants who responded to the victimization questions every year. 

A total of 187 participants – or 4.5 percent - identified as lesbian, gay or bisexual.

For the first four years of the study, when students ranged in age from 13-17, they were asked whether they experienced specific forms of bullying – name calling, threats of physical violence or actual physical violence – during the prior year.

During the final two years, when students would have been out of school under the British system, they were asked whether they experienced any form of bullying/victimization but were not asked to specify which type(s).

The researchers used a propensity-score-matching technique to identify samples of heterosexual boys and girls and LGB boys and girls with nearly identical victimization and emotional distress profiles in years one through four of the study. Then, using the matched sample, the researchers examined differences in postsecondary/post-high school victimization rates.

In addition to questions about bullying, youth were asked at ages 14-15 and 16-17 about their emotional states, specifically if they recently had been feeling unhappy and depressed, thinking of themselves as a worthless person or feeling reasonably happy all things considered.

LGB youth demonstrated significantly higher levels of emotional distress than their heterosexual peers one year after they completed high school.

The researchers found that about half of the LGB youths’ emotional distress was related to the higher rates of bullying and emotional distress that they had experienced during high school – suggesting that other factors besides bullying were negatively affecting their emotional health.

“Perhaps some environmental or societal forces are raising the emotional distress levels of LGB youth,” Robinson said. “They might be getting messages from their peers that aren’t exactly bullying but are signals that it’s not acceptable to be gay. They also may be getting those messages from adults, from certain media or other sources.”

Because emotional distress early in life, including the anguish caused by bullying, is predictive of emotional problems later on, it’s important for parents and educators to recognize the signs that children and youth are struggling and intervene to address mental health needs as early as possible, Robinson said.

Reducing victimization of LGB youth through bullying-intervention programs would help mitigate some of LGB teens’ risk for mental health problems in high school and later in life.

However, broader changes are needed as well to create safer and supportive environments so that sexual minority youth are not stigmatized, socially rejected and isolated, increasing their risk for victimization and emotional problems into adulthood, Robinson said.

Climate-altering programs might include diversity training for families that have non-heterosexual parents, discussion of same-gender relationships in sex-education courses, gay-straight alliances and open dialogues about homophobia in athletics and physical education programs, the researchers suggested.

Co-authors on the study were Dorothy L. Espelage, who is a professor of educational psychology at Illinois; and Ian Rivers, a professor in the department of sport and education at Brunel University in the United Kingdom.

Editor's note: To contact Joseph Robinson, call 217-333-8527; email jpr@illinois.edu

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