Kids can surely be mean to each other. And for those who identify as gay or lesbian, life can be particularly tough. A new study shows these adolescents get bullied two to three times more than their heterosexual peers.
While the researchers aren't sure why this sexual minority gets bullied more than others or the type of bullying, which can include various verbal insults and physical assaults, they suggest in general those who are different from the social norm are often bully targets. Whatever the cause, the researchers say, the results have implications for parents and schools alike.
"Students, parents, schools and community organizations can work to create environments that are supportive and accepting of all students, regardless of their sexual orientation," said lead study author Dr. Elise Berlan, a physician in Adolescent Medicine at Nationwide Children's Hospital in Ohio and faculty member at Ohio State University. "Schools, in particular, need to work to increase the awareness of bullying."
The research adds to accumulating results on the topic of bullying, with studies showing kids who bully at school are more likely to do the same at home; workplace bullying can wreak havoc at the office and is worse than sexual harassment; and key nonverbal cues could identify children who are likely to be bullied and rejected by others.
The new results also suggest older kids are still vulnerable to bullies, even though past studies have shown the prevalence of bullying declines after middle-school years. Lesbians and gays were the least likely to bully others, with none of the girls who identified as lesbian saying they had bullied others in the previous year.
The data analyzed by Berlan and her colleagues came from 2001 information collected in an ongoing study of American teens, which included more than 7,500 adolescents, ages 14 to 22. The participants were children of female registered nurses who took part in the Nurses' Health Study II, and they may not be representative of the general population. The results are published online in the January issue of the Journal of Adolescent Health.
Of the male teens, about 0.5 percent identified themselves as bisexual, 1.4 percent as gay and 4.5 percent as "mostly heterosexual." For teen girls, 1.9 percent identified themselves as bisexual, 0.3 percent as lesbian, and 9.5 percent as mostly heterosexual. The rest reported they were heterosexual.
No group was immune to bullying. Nearly 44 percent of gay male participants said they had been bullied in the previous year, compared with 26 percent of heterosexuals who reported the same. For girls, 40 percent of lesbians indicated they had been bullied in the past year, while just over 15 percent of heterosexuals reported such. About 35 percent of bisexual and mostly homosexual guys had been bullied and about 25 percent of their female counterparts.
Scientists have known that gay, lesbian and bisexual kids are more likely than their peers to experience any kind of victimization, whether at school or in other parts of their lives, Berlan said. Now bullying can be added to the list.
"The importance of that is we know that it's not just that they're bullied and that's a normative experience for young people," Berlan told LiveScience. "We know kids who are bullied have health consequences of those bullying experiences. Kids who are bullied are more likely to have physical and mental health problems."
Though the study didn't get at the content of bullying, some research has shown that regardless of the target's sexual orientation, bullies tend to spout disparaging homosexual content, according to Berlan.
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Jeanna served as editor-in-chief of Live Science. Previously, she was an assistant editor at Scholastic's Science World magazine. Jeanna has an English degree from Salisbury University, a master's degree in biogeochemistry and environmental sciences from the University of Maryland, and a graduate science journalism degree from New York University. She has worked as a biologist in Florida, where she monitored wetlands and did field surveys for endangered species. She also received an ocean sciences journalism fellowship from Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution.