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Bullying Hurts Everyone, Even Bystanders

Cyber-bullying and homophobic name-calling are common, and very harmful to all

Bullying is not a new problem. Most people remember either being bullied or seeing someone else bullied as a child. Developmental psychologists who study bullying report that more than 30% of kids in middle or high school report being bullied at some point. Kids are also remarkably willing to fess up to being a bully as well, with 20% of kids reporting being a bully at some point. When you include the 63% of kids who report witnessing a bullying incident, that leaves only one-fourth of children in middle and high school who are immune to at least one side of the bullying experience.

A recent study in the Journal of Adolescent Health examined two types of bullying that seem to have especially pernicious effects: cyber-bullying, which is bullying someone either through text messages or mean online posts, and bullying because of someone’s race/ethnicity or sexual orientation.

This study was conducted with more than 17,000 middle and high school students. The results of this large-scale study showed that kids who are cyber-bullied are almost 4 times more likely to attempt suicide than kids who are not bullied. If that bullying is based on the students’ race/ethnicity or sexual orientation, youth are almost 8 times more likely to attempt suicide. Although parents often realize that negative peer interactions can take place online, many may not be aware of the ways that online, cyber-bullying – that affects half of all teens–can be more upsetting to youth than old-fashioned face-to-face bullying.

Being bullied because of sexual orientation seems to be the most harmful of all types of bullying. Nine out of 10 LGBT teens report being bullied at school within the past year. Often, LGBT youth are trying desperately hard to fit in with the rest of their classmates. This “outsider” status puts them at even greater risk for anxiety and vulnerability than other kids when their peer interactions turn hostile. Not only does being the target of cyber-bullying because of sexual orientation drastically increase a LGBT students’ likelihood of attempting suicide, just witnessing the bullying of another LGBT teen can lead to the same emotional and psychological trauma as being bullied themselves.

Regardless of the cause of bullying, witnessing bullying at school can be extremely upsetting for teens. Observing bullying, for example, leads to increases in anxiety, depression, and health problems.

Why is simply witnessing bullying so bad? First, the teen may have been a victim of bullying in another context (such as the neighborhood) and seeing someone else bullied makes the student relive the traumatic experience. The teen may also want to stop the bully, but doesn’t. It is hard to stand up to a bully and regret over letting someone else get hurt, even if it is simply by doing nothing, can lead to intense feelings of guilt. The teen may also be worried that he or she will be the next target, and this sense of looking over your shoulder can be stressful and upsetting.

Interestingly, researchers also find that bullying because of sexual orientation doesn’t just target and affect LGBT teens. Homophobic bullying can also affect straight youth. Straight youth are also called names related to sexual orientation, names like “gay”, “fag”, or “dyke,” and this leads to greater anxiety over time, over and above regular bullying.

What does all of this research really mean for parents? It means that the harmful effects of bullying reach deeper than many parents may realize. All parents need to check in with their teens to see if bullying is happening at school or online. Even if your child isn’t the target of bullying, simply being a witness to hostility can impact your child. They need to ask if their kids see others getting bullied. Parents of teens who are LGBT or even questioning their sexual orientation need to be especially attuned to their child being bullied. Even if parents simply suspect that their child might be LGBT, then they should be especially plugged in to what is going on with their peers. A vast majority of teens are called homophobic names in middle and high school. This name-calling is not the result of kids being kids. It is bullying, and it harms everyone.

For additional information, read:

Rivers, I., Poteat, V.P., Noret, N., & Ashurst, N. (2009). Observing bullying at school: The mental health implications of witness status. School Psychology Quarterly, 24(4), 211-223.

Sinclair, K. O., Bauman, S., Poteat, V.P., Koenig, B., Russell, S. T. (2012). Cyber and bias-based harassment: Associations With academic, substance use, and mental health problems. Journal of Adolescent Health, 50.