Bullying of gay, lesbian kids starts early

Photo: Hocusfocus | Dreamstime.com

Photo: Hocusfocus | Dreamstime.com

Even though the incidence of bullying on a whole decreases as children progress through higher classes in school, bullying of gay and lesbian students continues to occur more frequently. A recent study found that targeting of lesbian, gay and bisexual (LGB) kids started as early as class five, perhaps even before sexual identity is established.

“Bullying in general – as has been reported by others – decreases as kids go through school, but the disparity does not. We found this persistent pattern across all the grades for bullying and victimization,” said Mark Schuster, who is chief of general pediatrics at Boston Children’s Hospital, a professor at Harvard Medical School, and the lead author of a research letter published in The New England Journal of Medicine.

Previous research into bullying of gay, lesbian and bisexual youth has found that they are at a higher risk than their heterosexual peers. However, most of that research involved asking older teens or adults to look back and to recollect their experiences of being targeted. Relying on people’s memories can lead to inaccurate results.

The new study tracked the experiences of children as they progressed through school. Students in the US in class 5 were interviewed about their experiences, then interviewed again in classes 7 and 10. Children were asked whether they had experienced bullying and those who said that they had, at least weekly, were categorized as bullied. They were also asked whether they faced situations such as exclusion from social settings, threats or physical harm. Those who responded that they faced such episodes at least weekly were categorized as peer victimized. In class 10 the students were also asked about their sexual orientation and attraction, and those who either identified as homosexual or feeling attraction to their own sex were grouped in the LGB, also referred to as sexual minority, category.

The study found that the prevalence of bullying went down as students got older, which is good news. However, children who expressed some attraction to others of the same sex were 1.9 times more likely to be bullied than their heterosexual classmates and 1.5 times more likely to be victimized.

Frequency of Bullying

 Class 5Class 7Class 10
Sexual Minority13.2%7.9%3.9%
Frequency of Victimization

 Class 5Class 7Class 10
Sexual Minority26.4%14.4%10.3%

What is remarkable is that children who expressed same-sex attraction in class 10 had experienced higher levels of bullying and victimization even back in class 5. The researchers wrote that at that early age most children would not know or express their sexual orientation. However, the article did not delve further into question.

Michelle Birkett, a researcher in LGBT health and development at Northwestern University, told Reuters that some children may already be aware of their sexual orientation by class 5. The important point is that either consciously or unconsciously, sexual minority children are sending signals that make them targets of victimization. Therefore parents need to avoid mocking or denigrating sexual minorities, or else they may unknowingly make their own children feel rejected or send the message that it is acceptable to victimize such persons.

Another interesting result in the study is the difference in the amount of bullying reported by the children and the levels peer victimization found by the researchers. That is, although children reported facing several negative situations, they did not consider themselves bullied. The original article does not address this, but FamiLife has contacted the author and we will update this article if we get a response.

Finally, both Birkett and Schuster lay emphasis on the fact that bullying is a serious issue and all victims of bullying need to be taken seriously and given support. Parents need to take note of physical signs such as bruises or scratches whose cause isn’t immediately obvious. They also need to pay attention for behavioural changes, such as anxiety, depression or reluctance going to school or getting on the school bus.

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