Two years ago, columnist and Seattle gay-rights advocate Dan Savage launched the “It Gets Better” project on YouTube. In reassuring video clips, adults promised homosexual kids — who are bullied and attempt suicide more than their straight peers — that life would get easier once they finished high school.
But does it really? Joseph Robinson, an assistant professor of educational psychology at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, decided to apply a researcher’s eye to the question. In a new study, he concludes that yes, it does get better — for the most part. “The sentiment of the It Gets Better campaign is that things will get better because chances are you are not going to be bullied later in life,” says Robinson. “This is the first time we have strong empirical evidence to suggest it does get better.”
Most existing research focused only on whether lesbian, gay and bisexual (LGB) kids were bullied in high school. No good data had followed students annually as they progressed through their teen years. So Robinson turned to information collected in 2004 from the U.K.’s Department for Education on the experiences of 4,135 children who were ages 13 and 14; he also looked at data from 2010 when the same kids were ages 19 and 20.
“I was particularly interested in these data because we don’t have anything like this,” says Robinson. “I thought, This is the perfect opportunity to see if it does get better.”
The survey, which asked the students about their experiences with bullying, provided the perfect opportunity for comparing how rates of bullying changed over their lifetimes. According to Robinson’s research, which was published in the journal Pediatrics absolute rates of bullying declined over time for all students, regardless of sexual orientation. In the study, over half of LGB students reported being bullied at ages 13 or 14; less than 10% reported bullying at ages 19 or 20.
LGB youth are bullied almost twice as often as heterosexual youth in high school. But the trends diverged after high school depending on gender. After high school, bullying rates became comparable for lesbian and bisexual females compared to heterosexual females. At ages 13 to 14, 57% of lesbian and bisexual girls reported being bullied compared to 40% of straight girls; at ages 19 to 20, 6% of young women reported being bullied, regardless of sexual orientation.
For gay and bisexual males, however, the relative rates of bullying actually increased following high school; they were bullied four times as often as heterosexual males. “We think that might be because people hold more negative attitudes toward gay and bisexual males and are less accepting toward them than toward lesbian and bisexual females,” says Robinson.
At ages 13 and 14, 52% of gay and bisexual boys report being bullied versus 38% of straight boys. At ages 19 to 20, 9% of gay boys report being bullied compared to a little more than 2% of straight boys. “It definitely gets better on average for all gay kids,” he says. “Rates for gay men are getting better but when compared to straight boys, it’s still much higher. We would be remiss to ignore that in relative terms, it gets worse for gay men.”
The current study can’t explain why, but Robinson hopes that additional research can reveal why bullying continues to occur after high school and why gay and bisexual men in particular tend to be singled out, says Robinson.
In a second part of the study that focused on emotional stress, Robinson found that straight youth have low levels while LGB youth have more moderate levels. At ages 14 to 15 and again at ages 16 to 17, the kids were asked questions about their happiness and feelings of depression and worthlessness. Not surprisingly, the higher rates of bullying experienced by LGB children appear to be partially responsible for their greater levels of emotional dissatisfaction. But half the disparities are unexplained.
Prior research tends to suggest that the anxiety and distress LGB kids feel can be alleviated by being in schools with gay-straight alliances and those with anti-bullying policies, and by teachers whom they consider allies.
But perhaps the strongest allies these students have in learning to cope with their sexuality are their parents, says Adelle Cadieux, a pediatric psychologist at Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital in Grand Rapids, Mich. “Parents should be open enough for their kids to even come out in the first place,” says Cadieux, who was not involved in the Pediatrics study. “A lot of youth aren’t comfortable telling their parents about their sexual orientation so they can’t even use their parents as a support system.”
Parents who are their children’s advocates can help by lobbying for anti-bullying laws in their states and policies at their children’s schools so that schools can become part of the solution. “Our kids do better emotionally and psychologically when they have good connectedness to their families,” says Cadieux. And even if that type of support can’t stop bullying, it can help students to confront it throughout their adult lives as well.