Research conducted across a myriad of cultures around the globe has found that about 1 in 5 students in the general population are bullied in school (inclusive of cyberbullying), with those who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender (LGBT) being nearly triple that rate.
LGBT-identifying students are bullied at triple the rate of the general population in schools.
It is notable, and perhaps helpful to parents, that cyberbullying rarely occurs in isolation. If cyberbullying is a concern, so, too, is traditional bullying. Many experts point to a lack of tolerance for gender non-conformity among both straight and sexual minority students, and a failure on the part of adults to model tolerance for diversity, as main contributors to the bullying problem.
What is Bullying?
Bullying and teasing have been associated with a number of negative health outcomes. Before briefly reviewing some of these, it might be helpful for parents to understand why such health problems are related to bullying, and why it persists as such an insidious problem.
By definition, a student is being bullied or victimized when he or she is exposed, repeatedly and over time, to negative actions on the part of one or more other students where there is a certain imbalance of power or strength.
Some key points here are repetition, and a perception by the victim, and perhaps the bully, of the victim’s social isolation. This means that bullying not only serves to socially isolate others, but it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy in that others fear befriending a victim of bullying because they believe they will then be targeted.
As awareness of this problem increases, so too do the tools parents have available to protect their children.
Role of Bystanders
Much of the research suggests that other students described as “bystanders” (those who are neither bullies nor victims) earn this label by virtue of observing, but not acting on behalf of a victimized student through intervening, reporting the problem to an adult or befriending rather than further isolating the victim.
Such inaction on the part of bystanders results in a perception by the victim that he or she is alone, and unable to escape this repetitive victimization. Indeed, children and adolescents in K-12 schools generally cannot escape their maltreatment since they must attend school. The reach of social media has, in some cases, further extended this zone of harassment outside of the school, bus and neighborhood, and into the home. What a decade ago was considered “safe” for victims is now a place within reach of school bullies. For this and other reasons, young people who are struggling with this problem feel trapped — and rightly so.
Impact of Bullying
Bullying is associated with higher rates of all of the following, which continue into emerging adulthood:
- substance abuse
- sexual risk-taking
- psychological distress
- poor academic performance
- missed school days
As recent cases highlighted in the media suggest, bullying can continue (or begin) for some in college. The degree to which a young adult in college is isolated among his or her peers may influence these issues.
How Parents Can Help
Parents concerned about these problems may find themselves helpless to intervene, and may also be frustrated by their own child’s unwillingness to disclose the frequency or degree of bullying. This occurs for a variety of reasons, not the least of which relates to the stigma surrounding sexual orientation or perceived sexual orientation, which applies to heterosexual youth bullied and teased due to the perception of being LGBT.
Recall that the flavor of much of the bullying that occurs is a backdrop to the perception (real or imagined) of the victim’s sexual minority status. Children and adolescents loathe raising these concerns with parents whether they’re LGBT or not. As awareness of this problem increases, so too do the tools parents have available to protect their children.
Health professionals and educators are investigating ways to intervene on behalf of those being bullied, and help is available. We hope you will visit some of the following websites for more information:
To make a donation to support the work of Dr. Boroughs and the MGH Clay Center for Young Healthy Minds, please contact us.
This article first appeared on the MGH Clay Center for Young Healthy Minds website.
Michael S. Boroughs, PhD, is a clinical psychologist and research and clinical fellow at Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School.